“A scene should be selected by the writer for haunted-ness-of-mind interest. If you're not haunted by something, as by a dream, a vision, or a memory, which are involuntary, you're not interested or even involved” -Jack Keroauc
*The names have been changed
The road winded up a steep logging unit. Four of us sat among our line gear, pulaskis, and drip torches in the back of a Forest Service truck. We bumped over ruts, and I admired the view--a panorama of snow crested mountains covered in dark green mixed conifers. The guys with me seemed to be admiring it too, their eyes gleaming beneath white hard hats. I think we all shared a sense of pride in our mission and an appreciation in where it took us that day. Conducting a prescribed burn with such a small group in the Lolo National Forest of Montana was a special thing.
Specifically, our task was to start at the peak of the unit, and using drip torches, we would drag fire down a ridge line. As we pulled the fire down, a helicopter would ignite the slope above our position using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD). Basically, it’d drop little plastic ping pong balls filled with a flammable mix and create ringlets of fire that’d converge as they burned on impact. The black line we created down the ridge would then prevent the helicopter’s fire from crossing onto another aspect of the mountain. We wanted to make sure all the built up fuel on our slope was consumed to prevent future wildfires as well as to promote healthy forest regeneration.
Sometimes putting fires out in an ecosystem that depends on them can feel wrong, but I always enjoy putting fire back in it. When burning a logging unit, you know, too, that you are doing something vital for the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on lumber, from the loggers to homebuilders to everyone who lives in a home. Everyone depends on the forest, the forest depends on fire, and we would hold the torches that created it.
Several hundred feet from the top of the unit, the four of us in the back of the truck hopped out, put on our line packs, grabbed the pulaskis in one hand and the torches in the other. We belonged to the same wildland fire crew, and after I had worked with them for a 6 month season the previous summer, I knew them well. Collins also joined us from the passenger seat of the truck cab. I’d only just met him, but he was friendly and wore a belt buckle that signified he’d spent at least three seasons on the crew to which we belonged before taking the position he then held on a different district. That day he would be in charge of our operation.
The winds were light and the temperature cool, high clouds, a blue sky. The unstable atmospheric conditions meant the smoke would rise and clear out of the valleys to the relief of the few people who lived throughout. We took a moment to let the truck turn around and drive back downhill where we’d meet it much later that evening. Then the five of us started hiking up and over snow drifts to our starting location.
“Are you ready?” Collins asked once we arrived.
Before we pulled fire down the ridge, we would first drag a few strips across the top of the section, which came to a point where our ridge and a ridge on the other side came together. We did not want the fire skipping over top of the mountain either.
We nodded our assent and unscrewed the locking ring on top of our torches, pulled the spout from out of the can, and flipped it over. Then we tightened the locking ring back down, loosened the air breather valve, and poured fuel over the wick and onto the ground. The fuel mixture was approximately .9 gallons diesel and .3 gallons gasoline. 3 to 1. If it’s mixed with too much gas, it burns too hot. If there is too much diesel, it won’t burn hot enough. We had ours just right. Deblois lit a small fire with his lighter, and we all fired our torches off of that.
Collins would monitor the strips on the first ridge and let us know when we needed to take more. Smith, one of our squad leaders and an eight year veteran of the crew, walked over to the other ridge---about 100 yards. He would do the same. Both of them were prepared to call us over the small handheld radios that we all carried if we needed to make adjustments.
The remaining three of us lined out going down hill, fifteen feet of spacing in between each person.
“Do you want to light a test fire?” Collins asked Deblois.
Delbois stood at the top of the line, I was in the middle, and O’Donnell was last.
Deblois affirmed he’d light the test fire, and he dotted in a few spots that were characteristic of the fuel we’d be burning--light grasses and pine slash. The uphill wind stoked the fire and a short flame length continued to carry it at a moderate speed.
“Looks good,” Collins said. “Send it.”
At that, Deblois paralleled the slope, periodically dotting and burning piles of slash or dragging lines across the grass to create one strip of fire that carried to the snowdrifted road bed where it held. After Deblois had gone about 20 yards, I began creating a strip, and after I went about 20 yards, O’Donnell went. If anything did go wrong, being spaced out in this way allowed the person at the top to drop below the other guys. Fire backs downhill much more slowly, and it rarely has the wind in its favor.
When each of us got to the other ridge, where Smith was, he radioed that we were “tied in.”
“Okay,” Collins said. “We’ll give this thing a few minutes to come together and cool down a little before taking another strip.”
A few minutes passed, and we took another strip. On the way back, I noticed a large burning snag leaning at a perilous angle against another tree. Shit, I thought, I better skirt this thing quick, because there was really no other option to go around the path it could fall. I also looked back to see if I could holler at O’Donnell and give him a heads up, but he hadn’t rounded the bend on the slope. Maybe, I should radio him, I thought, and after wavering on the issue for another few seconds, I decided I was wasting time and better get going. Besides, while it was O’Donnell’s first year on the crew, I didn’t think he was beyond possessing the instinct to know that he should be wary of the thing.
After we both made it safely to the other side, and in between catching my breath and sipping from my Camelback, I asked him:
“Did you see that snag? It would have been uphill of you a little ways...a spooky one... had a hard lean and fire running up.
“Oh no, I didn’t see it,” he said
Damn, I thought. I probably should have radioed.
“Well, shoot, man,” I said. “keep your head up. ”
We were fortunate to have O’Donnell. A good sawyer, a take-charge EMT, he was intelligent and technically skilled at the job in ways that I--a line digger and occasional torch handler-- was not. This gave him confidence in his place on the crew, which was well earned after several years working for another district. I appreciated being able to look over my shoulder and see guys and gals like him, and this, beyond the normal responsibility that the job entrusts, imbued an even deeper concern for their safety.
We passed back and forth several more times, until we were secure in our knowledge that once the helicopter started dropping spheres, everything would hold in place. Then we all regrouped on the ridgeline where we started to wait for the aerial operation to commence. However, we’d soon learn that the PSD device had issues and would need repair. Whether or not we’d even be able to complete the burn was a question that hung over us for a couple hours while we talked and waited.
Collins and Smith knew each other from their time working on the crew.
“How are the wife and kids?” he asked.
“Good,” Collins said, “Cody and Rhea started back to school in February. They were doing remote learning through the winter. Melanie is still cutting hair…”
“And how old are they now?’
“Cody is 6, Rhea is 10.”
“They’re getting old, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them.”
“Yea, well you ought to stop by the place sometime.”
“Out there past ______, right? You got yourself a little spread?”
“I got a few acres to toil around on.”
“Nice, Katie and I are looking for a place. Everything is just so damn expensive now. We’re having a hard time finding anything….”
As Collins and Smith talked, the fire edged towards us and caught inside a downed log, which proceeded to blast us with a wave of heat. We resettled just down from the log and pulled lunches from our bags. After some back and forth radio traffic, we were still no more certain about the status of the helicopter.
“What do you got there? Is that a hotdog” Collins pointed to Deblois’s lunch.
“You know it! I’m going to roast one of these weenies up.”
He attached the hotdog to a stick and walked over to the fire but was soon repelled by the heat.
“Well, shoot. Looks like I’m going to be eating them raw.” He grabbed it off the stick, wolfed it down, and proceeded to pull another from his pack.
“Gross” Smith said while digging into a tupperware of something more appetizing.
“Protein.” Deblois responded.
Deblois was one of the youngest on the crew. He was tall and lean, had a disheveled black beard and dark excitable features. He was also a true outdoorsman in the sense that, when not firefighting during the summer, he foraged for mushrooms, fished, hunted, or skied. He wintered at a tree nursery far outside town, which he caretook in exchange for free rent, and as far as I knew, he trained almost exclusively by climbing the snow covered hills. Among us, few could run or hike a chainsaw faster.
Collins and Deblois were acquainted and took a little time to catch up before Collins turned to me.
“So, Wright...Smith tells me you’re a vet...Army right?”
“Yep, I spent a little over four years in. You too?”
“Yea, I did one enlistment with the 82nd. I was a medic.”
“Hey! A paratrooper. That’s cool. I served with 2nd Ranger Batt a couple years and with 3rd Brigade 1st Armored.
We both stared off a little while, keeping an eye on the fire, admiring the mountains, perhaps contemplating the intersecting path that brought us there. That was on mind, anyway, but even as a veteran talking to another veteran, I am light to probe. I could be talking to someone who feels the weight of men he’s killed. I could be talking to someone who has seen his buddies die, or someone who is simply working out the role they played in a war that, looking back, they’re not quite sure of. There’s an unraveling, and about the best way I’ve found to go about it is by sharing experiences. So, I asked him:
“Did you do any deployments?”
“12 months in Afghanistan.”
“Me too. Well, I did a 6 month tour and a 9 month tour. For the most part, I was on a FOB just south of Kabul. FOB Shank. Where’d you end up?”
“We were on this little COP in Paktika. It bordered Pakistan. And I don’t know whose idea it was to put it there, but the place was completely surrounded by mountains, so that was fun, getting pot shots taken at us from up there every other day.”
“Oh shit. That’s the Hindu Kush, right?”
“Yea. I think so.
“Man, we flew out to a little COP like that when I was with Batt. They were trying to break it down and take it out, but everytime the copters came in for men or supplies, they took fire. So, our mission was to post up in the hills and set up ambush points. I wonder if we were at the same place. What year were you there?
“Shit, maybe… I was there in 2010. I remember crawling off a Chinook at night, loaded down with all my gear. We got to this spot and in the morning I noticed all these fighting positions. Someone said it was the same spot where a guy from 173rd, or I think he was 173rd, got the bronze star. Apparently the Taliban overran their position while they were there and shot a guy and tried to drag him off, but this soldier ran in, killed several Taliban, and drug his buddy back to safety.”
“That was Juden, I’m pretty sure. Tyler Juden. He was in the 82nd and stationed at the COP before I got there.”
“No shit. So you think we were at the same place? That’s f*cking wild!?”
Again we both took some time for contemplation. The other guys ate their lunch and looked on. I really couldn’t believe the circumstances though--that we could have been at the same small outpost, and on top of the same mountain even, in a remote part of Afghanistan, and then again, there we were, sharing something of a similar experience on a remote mountain in Montana. I had before reflected on that short mission in the Hindu Kush and even wrote about it--how we spent three nights up there, how we never saw a soul, but only heard several bombs from a plane dropped on a couple who we thought might be headed our way. The obscurity of time and the fallibility of memory always made connecting the actual pieces of events together a challenge, and what I was left with, and what it felt like in that moment, was a person confirming the actuality of what might have otherwise been a dream.
“F*ck man, that’s wild,” I repeated.
“Yea...Juden though, you know, he was killed later while riding in a humvee. This was a different place, and it was a patrol I might have been on. They shot an RPG through the door.”
Later, I would look up Juden (which was his real name). And I would see him in his Class A uniform, a red beret on his head, a blue chord on his shoulder, his chest lined with medals and an airborne pin, and his sleeve with the 82nd airborne patch and sergeant bars. I would read about how he was a track athlete and how he planned to get out of the army and be a teacher like his parents who survived him. He was 23 when he was killed, but he looked every bit a man who’d seen and intimately knew the dangers of the world. I would feel something like a connection to him and a sense of loss when I viewed his photo, but at that moment there was only the fire, and the guys who were with me, and the anticipation of continuing the task at hand. About 30 minutes later, the radio call came in. We were good to go.
“Alright, let's get lined back out,” Collins said. “We’ll go three, two, one, spaced out 10 feet, parallel to the ridgeline. We can just keep the same order between you. I’ll track with the burners...Smith, would you like to drop below us and watch for rollout?”
“Sounds good to me.” Smith said, and with that, we proceeded.
The strips of fire that we put down burned well into each other and created a solid line of black that hemmed the helicopters work in just as we planned. At the bottom of the burn we spread out and monitored sprinklers that had been set up prior in order to cool the area down, so nothing would escape into the ravine just below us and threaten to jump the road, which was the ultimate ending point. By the time we got there, it was already late evening, and I admired the flame as the sun fell. There were a couple points where I dug a trench to catch burning material, while remaining vigilant, so that the burning material didn’t catch me.
Right before dark we pulled off the hill and walked back to the truck feeling the satisfaction of a job well done. Collins and our crew parted ways at that point, and little more was said between me and him than we were glad to meet each other. On the drive back to our clubhouse, I asked Smith what years Collins had been on the crew. 2014-2017 he thought. A few days later I’d look for his picture among the crew on a wall of our clubhouse where all the crew photos dating back to the 60’s are lined. 2014. 2015. 2016--the year one of our own crew members had been killed on a fire--- and there Collins was a year later too.
I’m not sure Collins and I will ever meet again, and if we did, that we'd even need to say anything more about our deployments. The time and space we shared on a prescribed fire with the three others in our crew that day is substance enough for recollecting, what I sense, will also feel like a dream in the future.
Jessy coughed, screwed the lid on the pint of Black Velvet back down, and tossed the bottle into his passenger seat. It landed amid a pair of work gloves, ramen noodle wrappers, and a box of .270 shells. He sat back, closed his eyes, and tried to relax. Snot ran from his nose. With the sleeve of his coat, he wiped the snot away, but it persisted. He cursed the goddamn hay that caused it, rolled down the window, snorted it in, and hawked it out.
As he rolled the window up, a gust of wind caught the two eagle feathers hanging from his rearview mirror. His grandpa had given him one after he killed his first elk. He was very young then. The tribal council had awarded him and his team the second eight years ago. He was a junior in high school, and they had won the class C state basketball tournament. Crowds had packed in so tight the floors sweated. They cheered them to victory and filled him with impossible convictions long afterwards. For instance, he thought he might move beyond this place, but here he was.
He kept the truck running for warmth. Its interior light shown faintly now in the dusk, and having forgotten it was on, he turned it off. The orange sun burned through the snowy haze blowing off the mountains. The cow lay sprawled on the frozen hillside just below him. Wild dogs had run her to exhaustion, broken her down biting at her back legs, and torn into the soft tissue of her ass where blood pooled. Her pregnant belly heaved exhaustively.
Several hours earlier, he had thrown the hay near the cow to eat. She took a few bites and stared blankly across the plains. Her chewed up ear searched for the noise of predators--the dogs they had scared off several hours before he returned to spend the night. The two brothers who owned the cow bickered over who’d have to watch her. That’s when had Jessy volunteered.
Now the cow’s nostrils flared wildly filling the air with vapor.
“I said goddamn it’s getting cold,” Jessy laughed. “Not even the whiskey can warm me up.” He eyed the bottle, grabbed it, and took another sip. “Ayye.” He said with a gapped-toothed grin.
If only the cow could make it through the night and regain her strength, then she might be able to walk back to the corral—to safety. Or so the thinking went. He wasn’t getting much from it-- the pint of whiskey and eighty bucks to fill his truck up and buy a few groceries the next time he and his girlfriend could get to town. It was all the brothers could spare anyway, running the small operation like they did, and he wouldn’t have even asked for the money, if he didn’t feel the goddamn expectation to bring it home.
For three weeks he, his girlfriend, their daughter, and his two little nephews had been confined to their home for either lack of gas or means to travel over the snow plugged roads. He shoveled snow, he shuffled cards, he swung the kettlebell he’d taken years ago from the school gym because no one was using the thing anyway. They watched Judge Judy and Jerry Springer—all the crazy white people perhaps worse off, or at least more ridiculous than they. They cursed the evening news and its weather report. Then they laughed about it, then they planned how they’d ration their meals through the week. The venison ran out and they ate oatmeal, bologna sandwiches, Ramen, and Chef Boyardee. Occasionally she cooked a can of chili and made some fry bread.
One night he snuck out and smoked a joint with the boys in Tony’s bedroom at his grandpa’s house. They watched the Bulls lose to the Timberwolves. Alongside a marijuana tapestry and his fancy dance bustle, a poster of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman hung on Tony’s wall. He proudly wore the colors Black and Red.
As Jessy was getting ready to leave, another buddy showed up with a 30 rack of Bud Light from town.
“Your hero is here, boys,” He said “Here you go. Pass em around!”
“How the hell did ya get out?”
“Took old agency out to 89. But I wouldn’t think about it now. It’s really starting to blow. Hoo.”
The walls in the bedroom creaked.
“Hoo. I can hear it goddamnit.” Tony said. “Snow and blow, snow and blow. Supposed to do the same tomorrow.”
“Goin to get goddamn cold too.” Jessy said.
The cans started cracking open. One got thrown to him, and he worried about getting home. Shee-it, he decided, I never get to hang out anyways. Raelyn would be fine with the kids for one night. With that thought, he cracked his can open too.
“Hey,” Tony said after they sat awhile watching country music videos drinking a few. “Did I ever show you that ol’ revolver grandpa Spud has?”
“Na,” Jessy said. “I ain’t seen it.”
“Well, shee-it, man. You gotta check this piece out.” Tony got up and went to the main room.
When he came back, he walked through the door bow-legged, holding it to his hip.
“Here ya go, partner. Check this shit out.” He handed the gun to Jessy.
“Goddamn better believe it. You know where it’s from? …That piece you’re holding in your hand right there is from Custer’s band... from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Iyyee!”
“Ayye, come on now.”
“No shit man.”
“Yea, ol Spud in there, well his gramps was Sioux, and they kilt all them cowboys, Iyyee! … His gramps musta kilt one too. Took it off one of them sorry SOB’s, and well, that there’s it. Just kept getting passed down.”
Jessy turned the gun over in his hand feeling as though the whole thing might have taken place yesterday… that maybe he could been there, and he raised the gun eye level imagining as though he had just taken it himself. For several moments, they all looked at it with a kind of wonder as they passed it around. Then Cody, who’d just been sitting in the corner observing it all, piped in.
“You know Jerry Iron Shirt? Lives up in the mountains…Marvin’s uncle”
“Yea, I think I know him,” Tony said.
Cody took a drink of his beer and smirked devilishly.
“Well, he’s got something pretty cool too.”
“Yea, what’s that?”
“Got himself a scalp—no shit.”
The room got quiet as everyone looked from one person to the other.
“Shee-it,” Tony finally said.
A strong gust of wind shook the walls, and they all took a drink.
The eagle feathers swung in the rearview mirror as Jessy rolled over snow drifts on his way home. He had to park a block away and walk in. When he got inside, he found the kids still awake and Raelyn on the sofa.
“Where have you been she said?” and before Jessy could answer, she added, “Where the fuck was my phone call? How was I supposed to know where you’ve been?”
Jessy gave her a minute to calm down, and then he explained he was at Tony’s, and some old friends showed up. Raelyn rolled her eyes.
“Why aren’t the kids in bed?” Jessy asked.
“Cause they won’t listen to me you asshole…leaving me here.”
Jessy quietly rounded the kids up and shuffled them to their rooms.
“Stay in there.” He told them sharply.
“Jessy, I can tell you’re drunk. You’re drunk! Leaving me here with the kids all night after I work all day with kids. Working all day at the Child Center. It’s me and kids all goddamn day, and what do you do? Leave me here and go have a good time with your friends.”
Their daughter came back into the living room.
“Darling, what’d I tell you?” Jessy said. “Stay in the room. Your mom and I are talking.”
“But..” she stammered “I need a drink of water.”
The two little nephews came into the room, one chasing the other.
“In your room, in your room, in your room.” Jessy said, his voice gradually getting louder.
“See this is what I’m saying. All night—they don’t listen.” Raelyn went on.
“In your room!” Jessy yelled.
The daughter slumped to the floor and started to pout. Jessy picked her up under one arm and grabbed the arm of one of the nephews while demanding the other to follow. After wrangling them all in their room again, he slammed the door, and they started crying, and Raelyn continued yelling, and the wind rocked the small house.
Jessy walked into his own bedroom, slammed his door, and laid on the bed. A minute later Raelyn ripped the door open.
“No,” She said, “You don’t get to cut me off like that. I’m not done! I do all the work around here, and what do you do, you do nothing…nothing!”
“Oh shut the fuck up,” Jessy said and rolled over.
That’s when he felt one of the child’s plastic toys hit him in the back.
“The fuck was that,” He said and sat up. “Awasapsti, you crazy?
“ Get out of here. Get out! Get out! Get out! You’re not sleeping in here.”
She picked up another toy and threw that. It hit Jessy in the cheek as he turned, at which point he flew out of bed and stomped across the room and tried pushing Raelyn out of the door, but she pushed back and started punching him, and in the struggle, he accidentally grabbed around her necklace and snapped it. It was the necklace he bought her in Sante Fe several years back when he worked a fire down there. Her favorite one. Its brightly colored beads and turquoise gems scattered across the floor.
Raelyn immediately let go of Jessy and gaped in disbelief. She bent down and picked up the strand with the few beads still left on it.
“Oh just fucking kill me,” she said. “Just kill me.” And she stormed past the kitchen into the bathroom in tears.
Jessy waited a minute then followed. He heard the wind and he heard her sobs. A nephew poked his head from his bedroom out of the door, and Jessy pointed a stern finger at him and mouthed to get back inside. Then he searched the drawers to account for all the knives. He knew Raelyn had cut herself before. Scars ran up the inside of her arms, each one an outward reminder that she did not choose this existence, but all the knives were there, and he let her cry a moment longer before opening the bathroom door.
“I’m sorry,” He said and ran his hand comfortingly down her back. “I’m sorry. We can try to get the necklace fixed.”
“It can’t be fixed,” she said and turned toward him.
He kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll get you another,” he said and held her in a long embrace.
Jessy had drifted off to sleep in the truck. When he woke up, frozen snot was hanging off his thin mustache. He pulled the blankets he brought with him over his head and took the last pull from the whiskey.
“Shee-it,” he said.
The wind had picked up and his truck shook. It must be 20 below or more with wind chill, he thought, and he thought about going home, but decided no, he’d remain good to his word. The sky was filled with stars, a sliver of a moon hung among them, and the entire landscape was softly illuminated, grey, and shifting like smoke. The black outline of the cow remained in its posture. If there were any predators around, they must have been wise enough to stay away.
In the distance, the lights of the school beamed high into the night. What a waste of time school was, Jessy thought, were it not for basketball, a complete waste of it. He would not have even attended. He remembered the pervert math teacher always eyeing the girls from across the room and making weird comments. There was the constant rotation of science teachers, and there was that mean bitch, the social studies teacher, who stayed around too long. And his final year, there was that goddamn English teacher always preaching about personal responsibility. Half the year he had them trying to read that same book, Atlas Shrugged, about some shit Jessy would never know, all while he and many of his classmates were already taking care of the kids at home, getting them dressed, cleaned up, and their food put on the table, chopping wood for their stoves and for the elders in the community. What did he know about personal responsibility? God, he despised that man. Luckily they were spared him the second semester after the winter pushed him out.
A gust of wind battered his windows with snow. What it must have taken to live here years ago—defiance. It must have taken some real defiance, Jessy considered, as he slipped back into sleep.
From the blackness of his dreams, the mountains arose, then the valleys and the rivers, and the plants arose from them, and from the plants arose the animals, elk, bear, wolf, beaver… and buffalo. A great herd arose in the valley, and after them, finally, arose the people and their culture. Yes, but this was not the people the creator would have them be. He would have them be Blackfeet, and to be Blackfeet was to be tough.
Jessy saw the clouds begin to build and the plants begin to sway. A great wind began to blow until it became so stiff the trees grew permanently bent. Then the snows came, and the bounty that was, was no longer. The people had to fight with the other animals, with the other tribes, for their very lives, for food. Finally, from the black depths of this winter, from the black depths of his dreams, the sun arose. Jessy stared into the sun. He would not be moved by it, and he continued staring, until at once a great strength of will washed over him, and he felt within him, a scream emerge that did not leave his lips.
He opened his eyes. It was morning and all around him was ghostly silent as though a truce had been struck. He turned from the sun, and looked out his driver window toward the cow. She did not move nor did any more vapor emit from her nose. Jessy opened the truck door and staggered over to the cow feeling slightly hung over. He had the blankets still pulled tight around him. The cow was frozen stiff—icicles hanging from her chin.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jessy said and gave her a little kick... Nothing.
He staggered back to the truck, and after a few attempts, managed to turn over the sputtering engine. He looked one last time at the cow and considered it solemnly. Then he put the truck in gear, and driving down the hill, he figured he might ask the brothers if he could help process her early in exchange for some meat. Some parts would still be good.
After he left, the magpies gathered around. A bald eagle landed, crept forward, and pecked out one of her eyes.
Seven months later, Raelyn gave birth to their second child.
A little discipline and mindful practice can go a long way in ensuring an optimal experience in the outdoors. Below is an informative guide toward achieving that based on my experience in the Army and a lifetime of playing soldier in the woods. I hope you enjoy.
Devote Yourself to a Mission
There are days and weekends where I want to sit on the couch, do nothing but surf the Internet, and eat bonbons…actually, that’s not something I ever really eat, but the point remains—getting outside takes a level of initiative and effort that can sometimes seem daunting. And though, because of where I live, I like to take advantage of the wilderness areas and push myself a bit, I think it’s probably within everyone’s capability to find something in their surrounding area, which will, to wax spiritual a minute, allow them to disconnect from the artificial elements of civilization and plug back into that which is truly meaningful and life-sustaining, that of course being…nature. So, whatever it may be, hunting, hiking, camping, fishing, or just practicing a relevant skill in the backyard to maintain currency for the next time you are able to get away, I’d encourage people to periodically set missions to get outside, and even more, to actually follow through.
Keep Your Gear At the Ready
An understated skill, and one that can certainly be developed through discipline, is keeping your gear at the ready. And I’m not just saying for the Zombie apocalypse. Yes, prepping bug out bags and planning for survival are worthwhile, but more generally, I think it’s important to have your gear located and inventoried in such a way that if your buddy calls you out of nowhere for a backcountry trip or you recognize midweek there’s an opportunity for you and/or your family to head out over the weekend, you’re not exhausting your mental energy searching high and low for the things you’ll need. That’s why I like to keep my gear all together in one room. I have the sleeping bags on hangers, backpacks on wall mounted hooks, meals ready to go in bags, and my other gear primarily stored between two boxes. In one box are my in season, primary items that I will almost certainly need or have a high probability of using; in the second are out-of-season, secondary items. That way, when it’s time to head out, all I need to do is throw the first box in my truck or ritualistically pack what I‘ll use into my backpack, along with the sleeping bag and meals, and just like that, I’m ready to go.
Maintain Physical Fitness
Just as important, if not more important, than keeping your gear in order to reach an objective, I’d argue, is maintaining a level fitness that allows you to overcome any obstacle you might encounter to actually accomplish your mission after you arrive. After all, that should be what we are setting out to do. Right? Now, I understand, it’s not necessary to always be G.I. Joe’ing it in some extreme way, but on a more basic level, I think you’ll find that the best fishing areas, hunting opportunities, mountain top views, and peace in solitude are found if you are willing to put in a little extra effort, which begins at home or in the gym. For myself, I like to focus on practical exercises that really take nothing more than a kettlebell, a couple dumbbells, a backpack filled with rocks, running shoes, and my own body weight. Using these tortuous devices, you can really condition yourself for about anything, and with a high enough number of reps, you can also develop that deep, dense muscle striation that’ll make you tough like squirrel.
Create Contingency Plans
Pre-trip, if I’m to allocate extra time anywhere, it’s in creating contingency plans. Never mind planning where I’m headed and informing another party of my location and the duration I’ll be gone. That process should be second nature for anyone! In creating contingencies, rather, I’m taking an extra step and really studying my map and considering the shortest paths to a road if any emergency arises, alternative water points if a creek happens to be dried up, other routes to take if creek I want to cross is swollen, secondary camps if the first is not occupiable, mountains I might be able to climb if I need cell phone service, and well…you get the idea. Though, I agree it’s wise to always have a partner with you when you step into the backcountry, I’d be lying if I said often do, and these extra precautions can go a long way in putting my mind at ease, knowing I’ve taken every precaution I could. What happens beyond that, I leave up to the will of the world.
Survey your Surroundings
Alright, so I’ve finally made it out in the bush, rubbed a little pine sap into my skin, and let my inner Sasquatch out of the cage. Now it’s time to start surveying the surroundings. This takes a conscious effort. Every so often along the trail, I make sure to stop, look, listen, and smell. During this time, I’m gathering information on weather conditions, signs of animals, and any curiosities in the area. Additionally, I might try to identify future camp spots, hunting or fishing grounds, as well as plants and animals. One thing I like to carry is a laminated pocket guide that contains the regional species, so I can identify the ones I see from the trail. Finally, these periodic breaks are a good time to break out the map, adjust it to the terrain, and familiarize myself with the local mountain and creek names.
What is grit? According to an internet meme, whose source I can’t identify but otherwise nails the definition on the head, grit is bravery, pluck, mettle, backbone, spirit, strength of character, strength of will, moral fiber, steel, nerve, fortitude, toughness, hardiness, resolve, resolution, determination, tenacity, perseverance, endurance. Moreover, grit is the ability to resist griping if the temperature dips below 50, or if bugs are in the air, or if the climb is tough and the brush is thick. Grit is a very desirable quality to say the least, and from my perspective, the best place to cultivate it, along with anything else, is in the outdoors. So get out there!
If you’d like to read more about my military experience, I encourage you to check out my book titled, My War: In Truth, In Fiction, linked here....www.westofthemissouri.com/shop.html
They set fire to the dog, Cal’s dog, these junkies she and Will had gotten mixed up with on a three day binge, all of them using inside an abandoned warehouse. Will didn’t particularly care much for the little guy, but Cal sure loved him. And it was really terrible what happened.
He and Cal were lying next to each other on a mattress in a drugged up stupor, and the next thing he knew, he was hearing the death howls of the thing ablaze. Worst thing he ever heard. And then Cal started howling “Rassscall” “Rasssccall,” the dog’s name, as she tripped over herself looking for something to put him out, but, before she could, he just kind of fizzled out on his own, Will guessed. He rose from the mattress after Cal, his head in a fog, trying to comprehend what happened and not even sure if it really did.
“The hell just happened?” he said. “The hell just happened?”
Then he heard the gas can drop, and he saw the idiot they called Turtle Lips, because that’s the kind of lips he had. Will saw him standing there, turning away from the two idiots laughing behind him, and he looked at Will all bewildered, like, that really did just happen, and I’m the idiot that did it. So Will walked over to him.
“What the fuck, man?” he said. “Seriously, the fuck did you just do?”
And Turtle Lip’s look went from bewildered to just, like, plain stupid. So Will dropped him with a punch to the jaw and started kicking him in the ribs. He thought, maybe, he broke a few. He didn’t know. He would have liked to have broken them all. And he probably would have, but Ronnie, the only guy Will would call his friend out of the six or eight of them there, he grabbed Will from behind and pulled him away.
“Look to Cal,” he said, although, he didn’t say Cal, he said “MyShayla,” because, at the time, that was her name.
Cal was there, kneeling beside the dog, Rascal, repeating his name through her sobs and trying to hold him, but when she touched him, it yelped this terrible yelp and rolled its head toward the ceiling. Goddamnit, what do you do? Will thought. It’s toast. And there was nothing to do, not for the dog to live anyway. So he bent down and held Cal tight and told her it would be okay. Then he grabbed a spoon and the last of their heroin, and he cooked it up and drew it into the syringe.
“Hold his paw,” he told Cal. She held his paw, and he shot the heroin into Rascal’s leg. Not a second later, his eyes rolled back into his skull. Rascal felt no more pain.
“Let’s take him outside and bury him,” Will said.
Cal picked Rascal’s body up, and for the first time in what must have been three days, she and Will left the warehouse. This was in Seattle, and of all Seattle days, it was cloudless, sunny day. It was one day Will would have actually appreciated some rain. They took Rascal out back, to this little dirt plot, kicked away the weeds, and started using their hands to dig below the surface. Then they lowered Rascal in, pushed the dirt over him, and piled rocks on top, Cal crying all the while, Will coming down from the last rush he knew he’d feel in some time. Already he could feel the itch.
It was a pitiful grave back there, but about all they could do. Will held Cal to his chest, and for several minutes they stood there, not saying a word, as the breeze blew around them, and traffic rumbled on the interstate not a mile away. All those people with lives and families and jobs doing I don’t even know what, Will thought. Something respectable. Not burying dogs burned up by idiot junkies after they, too, had been shooting up the last three days. That’s for sure.
Finally Cal raised her head. She was seventeen years old to Will’s twenty, a member of the Suquamish tribe, and she looked about as native as native could be, with a dark face, a beautiful dark face, prematurely etched with lines from hidden griefs. Will lifted her chin to meet his gaze, swept back her long, black bangs, dried her cheeks, and looking into those remote brown eyes of hers, he said what they both knew. They had to leave.
They gathered their belongings from the warehouse. Will carried a large backpack that contained his and Cal’s sleeping bags, their tent, and cookware, as well as their personal items, and she carried a smaller pack for her personals. In the three months since Will met her at a friend’s house in Capital Hill and they took up together, he had become the man-mule, trailing her with a heavy load all the way. This was something they had joked about, but of course, at that time, nothing was funny.
“Please hurry,” Cal said, as Will packed and repacked his bag, making sure it was tight and he didn’t leave a thing.
“Hold on,” he said, and she started crying again and walked back outside.
Before going after her, Will went to say goodbye to Ronnie, but Ronnie must have shot up again, because his eyes just fluttered, and he just mumbled, and he had a huge grin spread across his face.
Back outside, Cal immediately asked, “Where are we going?”
“Goddamnit, I don’t know.” Will said, and she slumped on the ground, back against the building, resting her forehead on her arms and her arms on her knees.
“Let’s get back to Capital,” he said. “We can hit up the library, call Viktor, and see if he’ll let us crash at his place.”
Cal huffed, and he grabbed her arm and helped lift her up. Then they walked to the I-5 onramp where they hitched a ride a few miles from a young acne-faced kid in a beat up car. Before dropping them off, the kid asked if they knew where he could score some blow, and although Will did, brokering a deal was nothing he had time for.
“Sorry, man” he said to the kid. “I can’t help you there, but thanks for the ride.”
“No, worries,” the kid replied and vanished in a puff of exhaust.
Will called Viktor four times from the library and left him two voicemails before getting ahold of him. When he finally did pick up, he sounded paranoid as shit.
“Dude, what are you doing calling me from this phone? A public phone? You know they listen in on public phones.”
“Viktor,” Will said. “Settle down. It’s cool.”
“Dude,” Viktor said. “Did you really just use my name, my real name? Are you crazy?”
Will couldn’t keep from sighing.
“V-Money,” he said. “I need your help. MyShayla and I need to crash at your place.”
“Nah, man,” Viktor said. “Not now. Not today. They’re onto me. They have guys watching my place. I can see one now.”
Will could imagine Viktor all bug eyed peering through his blinds at his neighbor’s empty car parked on the street. He was a night janitor at the university and a small-time distributor, soft stuff mostly, and Will thought too much dipping into his supply, lack of vitamin-c, and hours spent inside his head cleaning urinals had probably made him delusional. Although Will didn’t know. Sometimes a person’s delusions turned out to be the real thing.
“Alright,” Will said. “Thanks anyway. And watch out for the black helicopters. I saw a bunch of them flying overhead earlier.”
“What?” Viktor said.
“Never mind.” Click.
Will turned to Cal who was outside the phone area, sitting on a bench, reading a magazine. On the cover, a girl was wearing a cowboy hat, patting the muzzle of a horse with one hand, and holding a blue ribbon in the other. Western Horseman, the name read.
“Well,” she said.
“Well, what are we going to do?”
Will knew other people he could call, sure. All of them bums. And he knew other places they could stay. Shelters and parks and back alleys. But damn, if he wasn’t tired of it all, and damn, if he wasn’t tired of making all the decisions.
“I don’t know,” he said. “What do you propose?”
Cal threw her magazine to the floor.
“Propose? Propose? What kind of a man are you? …Propose. I propose you got me hooked up with those losers who burned my dog. I propose you got me shooting smack. I propose I’m getting sick, sitting here and starting to sweat. And I propose you goddamn figure it out before I leave your stupid ass.”
There were a lot of concerned looking white folks turning their heads Will and Cals’ way.
“MyShayla, sweetheart,” Will said.
“Don’t call me that!”
“Myshayla,” he repeated trying to buy some time.
She just shook her head and turned to pick up her stuff. She was going to leave.
“Let’s go west,” Will said.
“Like, let’s go to Wyoming or Montana.”
“You know what I mean.”
She had her backpack shouldered at this point and stood there, still shaking her head.
“Think of it,” he said. “Cowboys….and Indians, of course. And prairies and tumbleweeds, and horses…We’ll get ourselves a couple horses.”
“You’re crazy,” she said. “You can’t even buy yourself a new pair of pants.”
“I said ‘get’, Myshayla. We can do this.”
“And how are we going to get out west?”
“Well, I don’t know,” he said.
She started to walk away.
“Wait,” he said. “We’ll jump a train.”
Where that idea came from, he did not know. But Cal seemed to like it. She turned, her eyes alight with the devilish sparkle that caused him to fall for her in the first place.
“We’re going to jump a train, huh? You ever jumped a train?”
At that moment Will had to decide whether he was going to tell the truth or stick his chest out and tell a lie, and the truth was no. He had not. After he had gotten out of his last foster home, it was hard to leave his mother’s ghost behind, that is, between Seattle and Tacoma. But with Cal, now he was certain it was time.
“We can google it,” he said.
Cal rolled her eyes. She threw her backpack on the bench and sat back down.
“Google it then.”
So Will googled it on the public computer, which took him down quite the rabbit hole, because it was not as simple as just asking how you jump a train. That was a good starting point for general things to consider. But the real complications arose when he tried to find the route, and the freight that would be traveling down that route, and whether or not the type of car carrying that freight was even safe to ride. Moreover, as he was trying to work it all out, he started feeling the withdrawal, and he had to resist every temptation to say to hell with it all and start hitting up some contacts. He just kept saying to himself “stop” every time the thought crept in. What he doing was for the good of Cal and him both. What he was doing had to be done. And, eventually, he did it. He figured the damn thing out.
That evening they would walk a few miles to the north of Balmer Rail Yard. There they would wait for an Intermodal Stack, a type of car carrying shipping containers of God knows what, and they would ride under a blanket on top of what is called a bucket, or platform, in front of the car. They’d have to pass through several junctions and keep a look out for flashlights, with a possibility of switching trains, but they should head along the Sound until around Everett, where they’d turn south, then to their imagined west… east.
“Let’s go,” Will said to Cal, who, by now, had a book titled Legendary Women of the Wild West in her hands.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” she said.
“All things are ready, if our minds be so,” Will quoted from Shakespeare.
“You know,” Cal replied. “I really don’t understand you when you start to talk like that.”
She put the book inside her bag, picked it up, and with his own bag over his shoulders, they were off.
As planned, they arrived to the north of Balmer Yard around sunset, having only stopped to spend the last of their money on drinks and snacks. They then watched a train pass hauling coal cars, which they couldn’t hop, but if one came their way with the right cars, Will thought they could make it at that speed. When he recognized this, that this was actually going to happen, he shook Cal into the first smile he’d seen from her all day. In all the anticipation, he even forgot about shooting up.
It was about an hour before he heard another train, before he saw its bright lights advancing down the rail. He had moved up the tree line some and ran back to Cal, diving beside her in some brush.
“Get ready,” he said. “I think this is the one.”
And sure enough, it was. There were the big shipping containers clacking down the tracks. Will’s adrenaline started pumping. The rush he felt was as good as any drug. He kissed Cal on the cheek.
“Let’s go.” he said, and they booked it to a platform, threw their backpacks onto it, and grabbing onto the ladder, they pulled themselves up.
They had done it, but their worries were not over. Will and Cal lay flat, scrunched next to each other and the bags. Will reached into his and pulled the wool, surplus blanket that was inside over them, and they peeked out, as the train picked up speed and skirted the Sound’s choppy, moon-lit waters. Then they arrived to Everett Junction. The wheels on the train squealed to a halt. The hydraulics released their pressure. There were lights. A guy in a golf cart whizzed past. Will had never felt more exposed, and in the tension, it was all he could do to not grab Cal and bolt off the yard. But then he felt the jolt, and the couplings started clinking, and once again, they were off, headed south on the right track.
When they finally turned east and the glow of the city fell behind them, that was when Will felt like he could take his first breath. He squeezed Cal tightly, and she squeezed him back, and they laid beside each other, watching the countryside go by, the cool wind on their faces, the warmth of their bodies under the blanket. It was as pleasant as scene as one could imagine, but in the idleness, too, the symptoms of withdrawal crept back in. Neither one of them could sleep, and Will couldn’t keep from vomiting about the time the Cascades appeared on the horizon.
When they reached the Cascades, the train grinded its way upwards for some time, and then, in the thick of Will’s convulsions, they entered a tunnel—the longest tunnel Will would ever know. The train crawled through, enveloping him in a dark hell for what seemed an eternity. Will didn’t know what Cal felt, but he heard her whispering into his ear, “it’s okay, it’s okay,” as demons besieged his mind. Will’s father red-faced drunk, his mother in hospital gown, toothless junkies twice his age, and even the dog, Rascal, howling and burned on the floor, all were present. And always the craving, there was the terrible craving to lose himself in oblivion.
Miles later, the tunnel behind them, Will’s cheeks were wet with tears.
“Look up,” Cal said.
And so he did, and there he found reprieve in the stars.
“Have you ever seen so many?” Cal said.
He hadn’t, and neither had she, and as they entered the plains and the town lights decreased to a few isolated dots on the horizon, the stars continued to multiply, and Will remembered thinking, the only word to describe them was, awesome. It was awesome, all of those stars, so many it was beyond belief.
Then the stars receded into the lights of Spokane, and the lights of Spokane receded into day, and Will and Cal entered another rail yard. Once again the train cooled and stopped. This time, though, it remained stopped. Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes, an hour. Will didn’t know. But they had to make a decision. They could stay there a day, or they could hop another train and continue on their journey. In the middle of their deliberation, the decision was made for them. Another train with the right cars started to pull out.
“It’s a sign,” Will said. “Let’s go.”
They grabbed their bags, jumped off the old train, and jumped on the new, and off again, they sped toward the Rocky Mountains, spirits higher, having made it through the night, knowing they were going to accomplish what they set out to do, and eventually they did, for the most part. They had gotten to Missoula, its big M emblazoned on a mountain in the distance, when the train rumbled past some protestors just off the tracks. A few had signs, reading “No More Coal,” and several others were sitting down, as though in anticipation of a future train to come, and behind them, there was a police officer, his arms folded in front of his chest. Will couldn’t help himself.
“Yeaaa! Fight the power!” he yelled.
The officer’s hand reached for his walkie talkie, and with regret, Will muttered “shit,” turned to Cal, and said, “come on babe, we have to bail,” to which she responded, “you’re a dumbass.”
The train had slowed since entering the city, and it slowed yet more, as it neared a station. They waited for an open patch of grass, and leapt and rolled down a slight embankment into it. Then they picked up their stuff and ran to a street, and they ran across the street, and they didn’t stop running until they made it under the cover of some trees and brush near a gas station, out of breath, and just generally exhausted. Their condition was not helped by the fact they had not eaten anything but jerky sticks and Cheese-Its since night, and there it was mid-afternoon. Their attempts to beg for money at the gas station were unsuccessful, and digging in the trash only produced half a sandwich and what appeared to be some burrito scraps.
“Well, shit,” Will said. “I vote we just find a place to crash and figure things out tomorrow.”
Cal angrily wiped off filth from the trash on her pants and threw her bag over her shoulders.
“I better get my damn horse soon,” she said
Will held out the sandwich half.
“Maybe, you should take this,” he said. “I’ll be fine with whatever is in here.” He took a second look in the burrito wrapper considering whether it was worth it.
“Where are we going?” Cal said.
“Away from people, I guess.”
Cal grumbled, shook her head, and led the way. She appeared to cheer up, though, after they passed through downtown. They found themselves along a large river and near the shoreline there where some ducks.
“Awww, duckies,” Cal let out, and she turned back towards Will and asked, “here?”
It looked like a good spot, a good safe distance from downtown with plenty of brush between them and the upper bank. They spread out their bags, laid under the falling sun, and fell asleep until morning.
Cal was the first up. Will found her near the river, feeling sick, she said, and upset because she missed Rascal.
“It’s okay,” Will consoled, “Today will be a good day. We’ll get you a horse. First, though, let’s get us some food.”
They packed their bags and walked back downtown as the shops were just starting to open and the sidewalks were starting to fill. Near a book store they set their bags down and sat next to them, and Will pulled out a sign. It read: I’ll recite you a poem. $1 or whatever you’ve got. It was a sign that aroused curiosity, and though they were shamed by a fair number of judgmental epithets and directives, it generally seemed to pull through, particularly with older women, who’d wince as they said, okay, half-expecting some vulgar roses are red rhyme but were then blown away by Shakespeare or Langston Hughes. And so it happened, not ten minutes after setting the sign out, Will dropped “Sonnet 73” on a gal, and she handed him five bucks. A little while later, a kid, who appeared of college age, and his girlfriend stopped by, and boom, “Bluebird” by Bukowski. A perfect recitation.
Will had learned these poems after his father had left him and his mother. He was seven years old, and they’d been married at least that long, which he supposed was a good amount of time to be married, and most of that time, it had been alright, it seemed. Will’s father was gone a lot, a Ranger, who deployed often overseas. Only after the last of these deployments did he come home and the atmosphere in the house turn electric.
He remembered one particular instance. His father, his white father, called his black mother, “a dumb, nigger bitch.” And he remembered it, because of the hurt on her face and because the next week when a kid, a white kid, had stolen his ball at recess, Will got angry, chased after him, and called him the same. A teacher overheard the name, and his mother had to pick him up from school, and though initially ashamed and embarrassed in the car, she finally got quiet and broke out laughing.
Later that year his mom said his dad was leaving. He was getting re-stationed, and they were going to stay in Washington. It was news that came as a relief. They then moved to Tacoma where she got a job working a late shift at a motel so during the days, and in particular, during the summers, they could spend their time together. Their favorite place became the library. It was cool, and there were different programs and movies, and it was full of interesting characters, but also books.
Will did start with the kid’s books. He enjoyed, too, when his mom read them to him. But one day he saw his mom reading Shakespeare, because she said, “People are always talking about Shakespeare.” And on that day, he asked his mom to read that to him, so she did, and several years later, at the age of fourteen, the roles reversed. While his mom underwent treatment for breast cancer, he read him to her. It was during those times the resonance of the words would really start to set in, and they’d come across certain lines in certain plays, and they’d think about them, and they both started crying together. It was those words, after her death, that led him to every other thing, as he searched for the right ones to piece his life together.
After Cal and Will amassed just over twelve dollars, he asked a passerby where the best place was to get a beer and a burger. This gentleman pointed them down the street and to the right three blocks to the Mo Club. Elated, the pair jumped to their feet and headed that way. They walked inside the Mo club and found the place empty, except the bartender and a man playing a slot machine in the back. They set their bags beside them, sat at the end of the bar, and salivating at the thought, each ordered a double cheese burger, and together they ordered one pitcher of PBR.
“Oh is this going to taste good,” Will said. “And goddamn could I use this beer.”
Cal could hardly keep from bouncing out of her seat.
When the pitcher came out, they poured a full glass, drank, and quickly poured another. When the burgers came out, they pounced and ate without talking. At that point, an older man came in and sat several chairs away in front of the T.V.
“Morning, Greg,” The old man said to the bartender.
“Morning, Jim,” The bartender said. “What’ll you have, the usual?”
“Yep, just came in to watch some golf, get out of the old ladies hair.”
The bartender brought him over a whiskey and coke.
After they finished eating, Will and Cal straightened up and rubbed their stomachs. They stretched, and Will ran his hand up and down Cal’s back.
“Not a bad way to start the day, huh?” he said.
“Nope,” Cal said, let out a quiet burp, and laughed.
“Some trip we had, huh?” Will said.
They contemplated it several moments in silence, and Will turned over his shoulder, a smile on his face, only to see the old man scowling back. Will turned back around, ignoring the man. The old man would not ruin this for him he determined. He would enjoy this moment.
Cal said she was going to use the bathroom.
“You know where I’ll be,” Will said.
He studied the bar’s walls. There were photos and sports pennants everywhere, most of them related to the University of Montana’s teams, all of them yellow with age. He didn’t see but a few pictures of newer players, and he considered the nostalgia odd. Maybe, he thought, it was just too much effort to give the place an update.
Will turned his attention to the last of his beer, and as he did, that’s when he heard it.
“Those damn Indians sure do stink.”
His face turned red. Surely, Will thought, he didn’t hear what he thought he did. But the old man continued, "Damn Indian, why don’t you take a bath?”
Will rose from his seat.
“I ought to knock your head clean off you old bitch,” he said.
“Oh, go to hell,” the old man said. “You’ll do nothing.”
Cal returned from the restroom. She tapped Will on the shoulder.
“What’s going on,” she said.
Will looked from her to the old man to the bartender. The bartender looked embarrassed.
“Hey, don’t worry about the money,” he said.
Will turned back to Cal.
“Come on, Cal,” he said. “We need to leave.” And they picked up their bags and left out the back door.
“What was that about?” Cal asked, as they walked down an alley.
“Don’t worry about it,” Will said.
“No, really,” she said. “What?”
“I said don’t worry about it.”
Will stopped. He tried to catch his breath.
“Babe,” Cal said. “We were going to have a good day.”
“I know,” Will paused… “We still are.”
He spotted two bikes outside another bar, each of them unchained.
“I found your horse,” he said.
He grabbed one of the bikes and handed the other to Cal.
“Here, jump on.”
“What?” Cal said, but Will was off, down the alley, onto the street.
Cal rode after him. Then, she blew by him, laughing all the way.
“Where are we going?” she shouted back.
“Wherever you want,” Will yelled. “Just wait for me.”
She kept cruising down the road, and Will struggled to catch up with the big pack on his back throwing him off balance. But they met at the next stoplight, and immediately, he noticed that devilish look in her eyes once again.
“Look,” she said and pointed to the back of a car.
There Will read the bumper sticker: We Still Hang Bike Thieves in Missoula.
“We’re outlaws!” Cal said.
It was a thought that seemed to give her great satisfaction.
“I guess we are,” Will replied.
Cal’s excitement grew.
“Like, I’m Calamity Jane!”
“What? Who’s that?”
Cal stared at Will, her face now void of expression.
“You don’t know shit about the west,” she said, and the light turned green, and she sped ahead of him, her long, black hair waving in the wind.
Note: Some of the experiences written herein are unique to me. Many of them are not. If you’d like a more informative explanation of Ranger School--i.e. the format and why I was there-- then now would be a good time to reference the footnote labeled 1) at the bottom..
I stood at attention in front of a Colonel and Sergeant Major in a small room. They were seated at the center of tables arranged in a horseshoe around me. To my right and left, there were shadowy figures-- other officers I couldn’t discern. The location was Dahlonega, Georgia: The Mountain Phase of Ranger School.
I stood there with eight toenails. Two had grown black soaking inside my boots, and I had picked them off. My knees were swollen to the size of cantaloupes. For over five months, I’d packed 60 plus pounds of gear, standing and kneeling, standing and kneeling. I stood there fifteen pounds under my normal weight. Everyday in the field-- Ten days every month-- I’d rucked, ran, climbed or otherwise moved, from sun-up to sun-up, and in the same duration, was only allowed to eat two M.R.E.’s. My body had cannibalized my muscles; my sweat smelled like piss. I stood there falling over myself, sleeping on my feet. In the past five days, I’d only slept two hours and progressed through all the stages of sleep exhaustion: giddy laughter, hallucinations, talking to myself, talking to bushes….
“Do you want to recycle?”
I caught myself. Blinked hard. The Colonel had asked me a question. Did I want to recycle, meaning, did I want to repeat the Mountain phase again?
Lets think about this:
The first phase I attended was Pre-Ranger. Here, we-- only ranger candidates from Ranger Battalion--learned the basics we’d need to know going forward. It was structured a little different than the other phases, but it was also as challenging, if not more challenging than the other phases.
Part of Pre-Ranger’s challenge can be attributed to the fact that I attended in July. We were at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was stiflingly hot and humid. So hot, that during one field exercise, there was no way to sleep except completely naked. Everyone was. We were in a big field. Fire ants swarmed every inch of the red clay and terrorized our skin. We dripped sweat just walking to the field showers--these bags hanging on post that trickled sunbaked water. We’d wait in line to get our hair wet, and we’d sweat walking back to our rucks. Salt crystalized in our pores causing heat rash. It had covered my whole lower back, ass, and legs, and every time I moved, the salt crystals would turn into a million tiny razors. The only way to get rid of it was to get a buddy to scrape your skin with the edge of his I.D. card or knife. Not everyone passed this stage. Of the 60 of us, maybe a quarter recycled. One guy was taken away in an ambulance as a victim of heat exhaustion, but I moved on.
The next phase was Darby. Here I recycled once. I was the Alpha team leader (or navigator) for the whole squad, and I failed my patrol. The definitive moment in my failed patrol occurred when we got to a point where our only options forward were through a swamp or walking down a road. We’d specifically been told, “Never walk down a road,” and we’d seen an Op four (or the bad guys) Humvee drive down the road. So I decided to take the swamp, but the swamp, as it turned out, was very deep and very rank. Mud suctioned our boots to the bottom; sand and grit worked into our clothes and gear. I waded up to my armpits, and some of the shorter guys basically swam. We got to the objective unseen. But the Ranger Instructor (R.I.), who followed my patrol, was not pleased.
After another month, I did pass. I lead a strong, but unmemorable patrol, and I made friends with my teammates, thinking these are the guys I’ll go the rest of the way through with, but I was wrong. In Mountain Phase, the location, where I still stood with the bush colonel… the colonel…where the Colonel was asking me, “Do you want to recycle?”… Here, I had also been asked to recycle once before.
When I screwed up in Mountains, I wept. I had not wept earlier during a field exercise, when this R.I., who was the meanest bastard, marched us up “the wall,” which was the steepest route, straight up a mountain, and when we marched to the top, he made us go back down and marched us up again and again. Three times we did the “Wall”, and along with my large ruck, I was carrying the 240, the heaviest weapon, and everyone around me was sniffling, and they were holding back tears, and when we got to the top the third time and the R.I. made us do lunges in circle after circle with our gear, most the guys around me did weep, pathetically, without shame, but I did not.
The incident that broke me into tears took place on an ambush line that night. I still had the 240. The rounds were on the feed tray. I pulled the charging handle to the rear and went to open the feed tray cover to check the rounds were seated correctly, but the bolt had caught on the feed tray cover. It was gummed up. So as soon as I pressed the indents the bolt slammed forward firing a round. And that was it: a negligent discharge, meaning I had to repeat the phase. Luckily, the rounds were blanks. If the rounds were not blanks, in a live scenario, that could have meant death, or in the least giving away our position, and this added to the guilt, shame, and frustration I felt. But my buddies were encouraging. One patted me on the back, and with that, I wished them well.
There was a cycle break, which meant for 3 weeks, I waited at Dahlonega to begin the next session. You might think this would be a welcome reprieve, and in some ways, it was. The meals were large, and I got to sleep a good amount. There were maybe five of us, and for the most part, we were only assigned light details. But, during this time, I think now, I lost my mind.
There’s not a rational way to explain my thinking, but basically, the prospect of repeating Mountain phase, and in the best case moving onto Florida, or in the worst case failing, got inside my head. I started to plan on going AWOL. The Appalachia trail was close by. I could hop on that at night I thought. I had all the gear I’d need to survive, including maps, and I could make good distance before they started searching for me. This was all planned out. I was ready to go. Thankfully, my better senses prevailed.
I began the next phase as the cold started to set in. It was November. While we were in the field it sleeted on us, and we’d marched around wet in 30-degree weather or lower, all day and all night. There was no escape: no fire, no warm clothes, nothing. Just cold. The only way to stay warm was to grab the guy closest to you and spoon vigorously. I’m talking, two guys wet and smelling like piss grinding the ever-lovin crap out of each other trying to stay warm. Or maybe, you’d get three, four, or five guys to join, the more the merrier, and we’d all be one stinking dog pile. But it was the best thing we could do. That’s how cold it was.
Despite, or maybe in spite, of the conditions, I had led a glorious patrol. Warning: unabashed braggadocio ahead.
I was a Squad leader, meaning I had two teams. Our platoon (Again 4 squads) had been tasked to move through two known enemy areas. (K.E.A.’s) I.e. we were moving to contact. The platoon leader (P.L.) decided my Squad would lead the first K.E.A. and another squad would take the second. At least, that was the original plan, but it would it soon change.
[Note: some of the following info I need to brush up on. I’m going off memory]
It was a foggy, damp morning just after sunrise, perfect for stalking the enemy, or in this case, the Op four. About 100 hundred meters before the first K.E.A., I had my Squad pause, we looked, listened, smelled, and proceeded to creep forward through the trees on line. My alpha team leader swung to the formations far left, I stood in the center, and together we kept the guys straight. The guy to my right saw the Op four first, before they saw us, blank-rounds rang out, pop pop pop, and the Op Four assumed themselves dead.
We paused as I passed the report to my bravo team leader, and he passed it to the P.L. I then led the alpha team through the objective, a maneuver where anyone alive would be double tapped and the weapons near the bodies removed. About 15 meters past the objective we formed a line. I got ups on ammo and made sure no one was “hurt.” Then I sent two guys back to do a more thorough search of the bodies, and not five minutes later, we moved away from the area, so as not to be tracked by the earlier gunshots.
The movement to contact had proceeded exactly according to the Ranger Handbook. As a result, my P.L wanted me to lead through the next K.E.A. too, because the overall success or failure of the mission determined on whether he got his Go, as well as whether all the other squad leaders got their Go. My squad was carrying the whole platoon. Encouraged by our success, I agreed. And the second K.E.A., as it turned out, went even better. Again, we surprised the Op Four. Again, the violence of action was great. Again, we were on and off the objective in no more than five minutes.
After both K.E.A’s and all the movement, it was nearing sundown, and we still had a long way to go to our final patrol base. Okay, I thought, this day is a done deal. But of course, it’s Ranger School, and they had us going all night. The R.I.’s handed down a surprise “downed pilot mission,” meaning, we were going to rescue a 150-pound dummy they had heaved down a steep ravine. So, again, my P.L. is like “[my name] I want your squad to lead.” And for whatever reason, maybe I wanted to continue to prove myself, I don’t know, I tentatively agreed.
Long story short: My squad owned. We rigged up ropes and traversed up and down this ravine, on all fours, doing every part of the mission, alone. Everyone else in the platoon kneeled in the tree line above us pulling security. And what’s more, our squad, according to the R.I. did the mission in the fastest time he’d ever seen. The whole day, he said, went smoother than any he’d previously witnessed. I knew I had my Go.
Problem: pushing my squad to the degree I did had consequences. Namely, it created resentment---resentment I had also fermented through my dealings with one of the guys who the squad had rallied around since they all began Ranger School together. This guy was from the Special Forces community. He was your prototypical square-jawed, stout, All-American Green Beret, and also, Texan. So, our problems begin with him, walking around previous to going to the field, in the sleeping bay, all the time, naked. He loved strutting around with his dick out. It was like his favorite thing, and one day I did the stupid thing, and I said something about steers and queers and it was obvious what he was, and he got all pissy.
This action rippled throughout the whole course. For instance, one day, he was passing out M.R.E.s for the next few days, and he gave me three of the same, shitty M.R.E’s. it was something like beef rib, which is basically a McRib sandwich, only worse if you can believe it. So, I said, “Hey, trade me out a couple of these shit sandwiches,” to which he responded, “How about you quit your bitching, [my name].” And everyone heard and I became the bitching guy.
What this all comes down to was, that at the courses end, we did peer valuations—rank your buddies 1-10. The R.I.’s got a percentage out of this, and we had to have above a 60 percent. Normally, I got seventies, which is pretty good for a lower enlisted. Once, I even got an eighty. Anyway, we’d just gotten back from the field, we’d slept two hours in five days, we were cleaning our stuff, so we can get some sleep and graduate to the next phase, and the R.I. started calling out numbers. We all had numbers. The numbers he called out were the guys who were peered, and thus would do it all again, and I was hardly paying attention, cleaning, not giving a fuck, and then I heard it, my number. I did not weep this time. I just started laughing, almost hysterically.
Next thing I knew I was waiting outside the small room, inside of which, were the Colonel and Sergeant Major. It was freezing and my pockets were warm, and for a while, I was doing pushups, mountain climbers, and flutter kicks, because an R.I. saw me put my hands in my pockets, which is where they weren’t supposed to be. But I finally got inside the room, and I was standing there…
The Colonel asked his question, and the Sergeant Major chimed in,“ You’ll start again tomorrow.” I knew this, and I also knew, I’d be serving the guys who just peered me their breakfast, and again, I wanted to burst out laughing. But I kept my composure.
“No, sir.” I said. “I would not like to recycle.”
Ranger School was designed to teach students-- from every branch of the American Armed Forces to Foreign military personnel--how to lead patrols, raids, and ambushes. The format throughout Ranger School was something like ten days of instruction, ten days in the field. The days in the field were split into five, with two days in-between to refit and get some sleep. Counting travel, orientation, and other events, this amounted to about a month per phase.
To clarify further, the goal of Ranger School was not to make us into rangers necessarily, anyone with enough grit could do that, and indeed, guys were ranging—i.e. patrolling deep into hostile territory, raiding and ambushing--- in “regular” units across Afghanistan and Iraq with little more than the skills they learned in basic. I had witnessed this, and I had witnessed those guys doing quite well. The goal of Ranger School, rather, was to teach us how to lead rangers.
After spending two years in Ranger Battalion, I was expected to pass, thus earning the gold and black Ranger Tab to wear above my Scroll. Passing was required if I was to advance rank from Private to Specialist, or later, sergeant. Moreover, since I was in Ranger Battalion, a special operations unit, passing was also required just for me to stay in. That is the stake in the Colonel’s question: I could recycle, or I could go home and get booted to regular unit.
It’d been several months since Frank Colville and his wife, Lynn, moved to Missoula and settled in their new home. Both sat in their living room, he in his recliner, she on the rug in the middle of the wooden floor with a giggling granddaughter reaching toward a toy giraffe that she held in-between her outstretched legs. The smell of baked chicken, cornbread, and sprouts emanated from the kitchen where his son and daughter-in-law cooked the Sunday dinner they had offered to come over and make-- all of this after Frank and Lynn had attended service, walked along the Clark Fork River, and watched the Bronco’s game.
Outside the widow, the sun descended beneath the blunted tops of the distant mountains, and in their yard, oak and maple burned with color. It was, in every way, a beautiful fall day, Frank thought, as light filtered between the blinds and streaked across his brow. And yet, he remained troubled. There was a feeling he had carried all his ranching life, and most strongly on that day, a premonition, that either something deep in his own mind or the haunted landscape itself had finally given shape to in the pitiful image of that boy, slumped dead on his range.
They had had a tough winter that year, last year, even by the Front’s standards. The temperatures plummeted, the snow piled up, and characteristically, the clouds, as though trapped, would grow to such monumental proportions behind the Rocky Mountains that there seemed one continuous wall extending from the earth to the heavens until the wind’s terrific roar broke them free and swept massive drifts across the plains. It was just after such a day, in the icy stillness that followed, that Frank heard the wolf, its long and solitary howl issuing from a void.
“I’m going to check on the cattle,” he told Lynn, who simply smiled from the kitchen where she was cleaning up after supper. Frank put on his riding boots over his thick wool socks, his quilt lined Carhart over long underwear, his felt cowboy hat over fine, grey hair. He took his Winchester .308 from the cabinet, opened the lever to check the chamber, and loaded several rounds. Finally, he opened the door to cross the threshold between his home and the immensity beyond and was nearly blinded by the sun shining directly over the mountains.
Frank pulled his brim down, zipped his coat to the collar, and put on the gloves from inside its pockets. He walked to the barn, saddled and bridled his horse, led the horse from the barn, out of the corral and mounted. With a thrust forward in the saddle, he started the horse toward the mountains, toward a pine grove beneath them where the cattle bedded down, and to there he rode for over a mile, frost numbing his cheeks, breath condensing each time he exhaled.
Along the way he imagined the first settler on these parts, a man who, inspired by the Homestead Act, had driven his team of mules to these reaches in search of the paradisal plains he’d read of in the eastern papers, and instead, encountered the same wall that had caused Lewis and Clark to despair. So, forced to end his journey, he rode out his first winter there, sleeping beneath his wagon, using his furniture for fire, and eating those mules for food. This according to Frank’s grandpa, who bought the parcel of land from the man’s son, as well as several surrounding parcels, which was the only way he could make a successful ranching operation of it. And so it was, and so it was passed down, grandfather to father, father to son, and destined to stop there, for Frank’s own son had pioneered his way to the university in Missoula on a rodeo scholarship, and after meeting his future wife, determined to remain.
But, there was something else in that landscape too, the shades of Blackfeet warriors moving across the earth on powerful horses carrying buffalo lances, bows, and shields, these royal knights of the plains in barbaric regalia, inciting both awe and terror. He could see their slow departure from the land in the clouds’ giant projections upon the ground. He could hear their voices’ ancient timbres in the wind, a low and sullen murmur.
Frank’s horse startled. He patted her on the neck, pulled his rifle from the scabbard on her side, and brought the scope to his eye. The cattle had congregated to the northern edge of the pine grove. A few stood in the open hoofing the ground for life beneath the frozen surface. Frank glassed toward the south but only found dark between the trees. He dropped the rifle, pressed the horse slowly on, and squinted against the sun, as it now eclipsed the mountain tops. There was something.
Frank caught the wolf in his periphery and again raised the scope in time to see it fully emerge from the tree line, its body thick in winter coat, its blue eyes, portals to a world he could never imagine. Together, they stood locked in a gaze, frozen in an eternal moment. And for some reason, for all the wolves Frank had shot, he could not bring himself to pull the trigger on this one. He couldn’t even bring himself to put the crosshairs where they needed to be. The horse turned, Frank’s sight dipped, and when he raised it again, the wolf was gone.
Frank kicked the horse into a trot and dismounted at the pines grove’s edge where he picked up the wolf’s tracks. He tied the horse off to a tree, and rifle at the ready, followed the tracks in, pushing past limbs, further and further until he spotted an opening. He stopped. A raven cawed and flew past with a wild beating of wings. There, the tracks left off. There, the image appeared before him, a dark indistinct mass contrasted against the light flooding through the canopy. And the closer he crept, the more it became clear. It was the boy.
The boy was leaned against the tree wearing only a long sleeve shirt, basketball shorts, basketball shoes. He was frozen dead. And though, there weren’t any tracks to indicate where he’d come from, as they’d blown away, it was clear. He’d come from the little community on the reservation, nearly eight miles away. Frank removed his hat and said a prayer, took off his coat and gently wrapped the boy in it. He noted that no animal had touched him.
Getting the boy onto the horse was not easy. Not at Frank’s age. At over 150 pounds and stiff as the boy was, Frank struggled to drag him out of the clearing, and the whole time he felt remorse for his inability to exercise the proper respect and care he thought the body deserved, as he stumbled over the trees and snagged on their branches. But, he made it out and thus began the even more exhausting task of lifting the boy onto the horse—a task he only believed was made possible by God’s grace.
With the boy across the saddle, Frank was forced to walk back, leading the horse by the reigns. By the time he was ready, the sun had all but set, and the first stars had dotted the sky. While walking, the sweat that had dampened his body during the heated struggle began to freeze. He tried to control his shivering, but this only seemed to make him break out in even worse fits, to the point he felt might lose all control and sink to his knees to suffer the boy’s same fate. “Good, God,” He said beneath his breath without thinking, then after several more steps forward, he repeated the phrase louder, almost questioning it, and searched the sky.
The Milky Way now spread from horizon to horizon, the great glowing spectacle of it indicating every act great and small, from that vast firmament’s creation in all its explosive glory and power to him trembling on the precipice between life and death. All of it, he thought, amounted to this. The boy there, me here, and the light of our home in the distance. He had no control over any of it. And considering this, he felt something in the center of his being shift.
When he reached his home, he dismounted and took one step inside, removed his hat, and asked his wife to call Jim, the Pondera County Sherriff. She didn’t need to hear him speak to know that something was terribly wrong. The next day the heard they identified the boy and his family. But what had caused him to run away like that, into that blinding cold oblivion, that he would never know for sure. Maybe, he had simply wandered out and gotten lost, Lynn had said. “Maybe so,” Frank replied. And in that same conversation, they decided yes, it was time for them to sell the property and move.
Frank, Lynn, their son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter all sat around the table. After grace, they passed the food around. Lynn insisted on feeding the baby. Jake related the news from his business, that it was going “well enough,” but Sarah was looking at a promotion. Now, they were only trying to decide on a new vehicle. Of course, he wanted a truck, but that wasn’t practical, she said, not for around here, not if they had another kid. Frank observed it all silently. He noticed his son’s red cheeks, and he noticed every time he refilled his glass.
One of the first major training exercises I did was a night jump with a platoon, follow-on mission. Now, forgive the Tim O’Brien list that follows, but the weight of the things I carried was important:
For the mission, I carried a squad automatic weapon (SAW), which was a belt fed, fully automatic rifle that weighed approximately sixteen pounds. I carried my body armor with two fifteen-pound ceramic plates for my front and back and two five pound plates for my sides. I carried my night vision goggles (N.V.Gs), attached to my helmet, which, together, were maybe, five pounds. And I carried my rucksack, an old ALICE pack that weighed about three pounds, plus the weight of water and other things inside it that I can’t now recall. This brought my total weight to around sixty pounds, and if that isn’t right, who’s to say I’m a reliable narrator? Sixty pounds is the weight it’s going to be.
Anyway, the plan was to jump from the plane at night. I’d be in one of the first passes, meaning I’d hit the drop zone (D.Z.), the plane would circle, and another group would jump. We couldn’t all get out at the same time. The D.Z. was only like 500 yards, east/west north/south. It was big but not that big. After we hit the ground, we were supposed to find guys in our platoon, move together to a rally point (R.P), drop our rucksacks, and proceed to conduct mock raids on a training town—no issues. That’s how the training was supposed to ideally play out. This is how it actually did:
Inside the aircraft, a C-130, we (you, the platoon, and I) took a seat on benches, either on the outside row along the aircraft’s skin or the inside row down its center. There were two rows down the center, positioned back to back, so the outer and inner rows faced each other. This made four total rows, each seating one squad (eight to twelve guys), or altogether, one platoon.
We wore a main chute on our back, a reserve chute near our gut, a rucksack in between our knees, and a weapon’s case on our leg. A jumpmaster stood near the door. After the aircraft took off, he indicated the time before we jumped. “10 minutes,” he yelled and signed by flashing five fingers on each hand. We repeated this to each other in case anyone was unaware or sleeping, which was common. I’d often sleep. The hum of the props and the aircraft’s rocking had a lulling effect.
“5 minutes,” the jumpmaster yelled, and one row, our row, stood up, and we gripped the hook at the end of the static line, which was the yellow chord attached to the parachute. We hooked the static line to a cable that hung near our head and ran the aircraft’s entire length. The jumpmaster gave two other commands; we checked our equipment. “Sound off,” he yelled, and we sounded off, front to back, each person, one number. When the last guy said his number, he slapped the guy in front of him on the butt, and that guy slapped the guy in front of him, and so on, until a slap hit the first person who gave to the jumpmaster a thumbs up, “Okay.” “Standby,” the jumpmaster yelled. There were approximately ten seconds to the green light. Then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Go! We started heading out the door.
From your perspective, this is how things began to go. As soon as you exited, you tucked into a tight body position; otherwise, the force from your opening chute would have spun you in circles, twisted the risers to your canopy, and turned you like a top all the way down. Also, immediately following the exit, you started counting one-one thousand, two-one thousand, all the way to four. This is about the time it took for the static line, now attached from the chute to the bird, to open. If you counted to four and didn’t feel the force-- a sudden jerk-- from the chute opening, you would have pulled the reserve.
In this case, the chute did open. “Airborne,” you yelled and began to look around, to try and avoid fellow jumpers. Of course, this was at night, so you did not see one fellow jumper until he was, like, five feet away. “Watch it, jerk,” he politely called out, and you pulled a slip, that is, grabbed the raisers to one side, which caused your canopy to dip and you to drift into another fellow jumper.
Once you got to treetop level, you could have done this thing. There was a tab attached to your rucksack that you could have pulled, causing your rucksack and weapons pouch to release from your body and swing below you on another chord that you rigged up earlier. This would have been useful to prevent landing painfully or awkwardly on your equipment, but you were too busy avoiding your fellow jumpers to pull the tab. “Oh well,” you thought and assumed a proper landing position---legs together, knees slightly bent. You hit the ground.
Now, it’s back to me:
Upon hitting, the first thing I did was pull the parachute riser release on my harness so a strong gust of wind didn’t inflate my chute and drag me across every rock on the D.Z. Then I opened my weapon’s case, took out and loaded my SAW, reached into my rucksack, first grabbed my body armor, put it on, and second grabbed my N.V.Gs, which I tore from their protective bubble wrap and fitted to my helmet. The world, thereafter, was viewed though a green lens. Finally, I started rolling away the parachute into this bag that I would run to a drop point on the D.Z.
But, about this time in the process, I just finished getting my chute inside the bag, this guy landed-- or crashed rather-- next to me. He just started screaming, so I ran over to him. Turns out, this guy’s buddy, who jumped in front of him, had to pull his reserve, which was spring loaded. The chute shot back, right into this guy’s face, knocking him unconscious. He regained consciousness, however, as soon as he hit the D.Z., because landing all wonky legged resulted in a compound fractured fibula. His bone was sticking out of his leg. Being the nearest to him, I did what I was supposed to do: I broke out a red chem-light, which was tied to a string and started whirling it around my head. A medic saw this and drove over in a van. I helped get this guy’s chute untangled--it was all twisted around him-- and I helped load him into the van.
All this has the effect of making me late for the platoon, follow-on mission. Keep in mind too, that I was new. Just about everyone in the platoon was senior to me, and there was incredible pressure not to screw up. So, I had to navigate my way to the rally point, which was in the woods, off the D.Z., approx. 300 yards away. It was dark, everything was green, and because the whole company was doing this, I only saw a few guys from other platoons going in separate directions. What I didn’t see, were any guys from my platoon. So, I pulled out this crummy, little map and tried to orient where I was at on this big, open DZ, I start hauling butt, alone, to where I thought the rally point was located, and somehow I made it.
When I got to the R.P., my whole platoon was there, and they were just about ready to go. I ran up, and my squad leader was like “where the heck were you?” and I was out of breath trying to explain this screwed up thing that happened, but I could only get out a few words out like, “This guy. Fell. Broke leg. Crap.” And my squad leader cut me off like “Whatever just get in position.” I mean, he did have ten other guys to worry about, not to mention a platoon sergeant coming down on him, so all this was reasonable. I got into my position, and a minute later, we rolled out.
Here’s the thing though. When everyone else rolled out, they dropped their rucksacks. The plan was to return to them later. I did not drop my rucksack, because one, I didn’t have much time to think about it and two, because the guy in front of me, a medic, had on his big medical bag, which, through my night vision, looked exactly like a rucksack. I just followed his lead. This screw up amounted to them: running around, clearing rooms inside these training buildings like ninjas. And me: sucking wind with a big rucksack, my body armor and machine gun like this massive, lumbering thing.
None of this was fun, to say the least. At one point, too, I had to climb up a ladder through this narrow opening to a rooftop, which may have made for good tactical placement, but I’m pretty sure my team leader actually made me do it to teach me a lesson, because not five minutes later, I had to go back down. Add on to this, that when we got back to our barracks I ended up doing push-ups for an hour because I slowed my teammates down, and I still had on all my gear, including the rucksack, and yea…I learned a lesson that day: Drop your rucksack at the R.P. before a raid unless the plan you paid very close attention to earlier specifically states otherwise.
S. Sgt. Mac? That guy you gotta watch out for. He’s got your back, no doubt, but I’m tellin you, you watch him. He’s a crazy mofo, I tell you. Marco, you remember that night? Ya, of course you remember. Objective Osborne, not a month after we got here. Can’t forget that shit. Okay, okay, I s’pose I’ve had enough to rehash this, but, man. Man…okay.
Corporal Salazar takes a pull from whiskey inside a Mountain Dew bottle and chases it with a slug from a Rip-it, caffeinated drink. His brow tenses, and he exhales slowly. The whiskey smells strong. The small room is lit with a single fluorescent panel. Marco turns down Metallica playing over a portable CD player. Salazar extends the bottle to me. “Take this,” he says and continues,
Okay, so, me and Marco here and Lewis and jeez, who else... Oh yea, Pigpen, that fucker. All of us and Sgt. Mac, we roll up to this bastard’s house middle of the night in this Iraqi ghetto…. like all of Bagdhad, isn’t by now, right? Haha! But yea, I mean this place is the worst. Trash and shit everywhere. Literally, the shit and piss smell outside is so strong it makes your eyes burn. Random ass wires and cables hang so low across the roofs they’ll rip the gunner right out. And that’s a tip to you, man. Watch out for that shit, that is, if your ass ever gets out. Fuckin cherry. Haha Jeez.
Okay, yea, yea, right. So, all us roll up, the driver drops the ramp, and we stack on this bastard’s house.
He pauses. His jaw clenches.
God! This bastard. I swear…
He pounds the metal frame on his bed.
Right, Marco. Am I right? Haha, jeez. Alright. He’s got this rickety tin door Sgt. Mac. makes quick work of with the shotgun, and you know, Mac's gonna blow the lock and kick the door and be the first one in, every time. And he does this, and we flow in right behind him. I’m second, Marco’s third, Lewis fourth, and Pigpen, I don’t know, probably rollin in shit outside, lovin it, for real, haha! Com’on Marco. What? Fuck you. That’s right. You want to tell it? Huh? Yea, fuck you. Pass me that bottle.
He takes a swig, chases it with Rip-it, slowly exhales, and continues,
Right, right, okay. First room. Clear. But there’s one more. The door is a curtain, and I’m the nearest to it. Sgt. Mac on the other side and Lewis behind me and Marco Behind him, Pigpen wherever. The stacks on me, right? Yea. Once I feel Lewis push me, I flow into this other room, muzzle to the corner,
[He points to the corner of the small room like his hands are on a rifle]
[His hands swing left]
And there he is... the bastard, with his hands up, walking toward me. So, I grab his filthy man-dress with my non-firing hand, swing him around to Marco, and Marco here throws him to the floor…right, yea.
And the whole time, this bastard’s saying stuff. Speaking Haji, right. And I think, whatever…that’s what I think at first. But well, turns out he’s sweet talking his ol’ lady, just not into anything nice….you’ll see.
His old lady is crouched, unveiled on the floor, in the corner, about 10 feet away. And I can tell even through my NOD’s, she’s crying. She starts sobbing something back to this guy, who Marco’s got his fucking muzzle on, the bastard.
So, I’m thinking I’ll just grab this lady…you know. That’s what I think. I’ll just grab her no big deal, we will put her with the bastard, search the room and roll out, like we always, do. Again, no big deal. But I start walking toward her and Sgt. Mac stops me.
“Lassuna Portaka,” He yells at the girl… which, I’m stopping a second. Fuck you, Marco. This is important, okay. That’s what you say, remember it. lassuna Portaka means put you hands up. Say it. Lassuna portaka. Alright, Remember that.
Okay…where was I, right. So now, I want to see her hands too, so I say, “lassuna portaka,” and before long, the whole rooms saying it, but she doesn’t respond, just sobs more. “Where’s the terp?” Sgt. Mac. calls in, “Send us the terp,” and it turns out he’s right behind us, normally was. And he starts talking haji too. So, there’s this three way going, everyone kinda yelling now and confused. Then the girl stands up and starts walking toward us with her hands still tucked into her dress.
Lassuna Portaka I yell, I mean, everyone’s yelling now, and the terp, just goes, like, “get out!” He backs up and says this, and I’m like, the fuck? I turn around looking at him, and I hear Lewi call out, “Landslide! Landside,” Cause, yea… this girl…this bitch, yea, she has a grenade, And…Jesus. Sweet Mother Mary, you know Marco. Sweet Mary.
I turn back around, and start back peddling, tripping over this shit all over the place, thinking…I don’t know. And yea, then I hear it… 3 shots in quick succession, right into this bitch, this fucking bitch, three shots from her chest to her head. Sgt. Mac put them there…Jesus. She just slumped backward.
About ever body got out the room except me and Mac and well, the bastard still lying on the floor but now with his hands on the back of his neck, elbows shielding his face like a baby, and, you know…there’s the dead bitch. And the grenades next to her, but I imagine if she pulled it, we’d been dead already. Still, Sgt. Mac looks over and tells me to get in the other room already, so I do.
About 5 minutes go by, and I tell you what, Mac comes out with the bastard, dragging him by the collar, and the bastards looking roughed up, blood all over his face and well, you know...God.
He gets quiet. Locks eyes with me. I stare into them like two darkening abysses receding deeper and deeper. I break contact.
You like that story he snaps, Huh? You fucking Cherry. You like that? Next kill is mine, bitch. Next kill is…Marco, Hold on. Hold on, Marco. Yea, maybe it is best you fucking leave!
It was Sergeant Harris’s second tour to Afghanistan. He was assigned to provide the Colonel personal security on patrols. That day they sat in the Brigade Tactical Operations Center (TOC), which was a large room with a couple monitors at the front, several rows of desks lined with computers, and about 25 people who kept tabs on the two provinces and approximately 5,000 troops under the Colonel’s command.
A radio call came in from a base near the Valley. The platoon stationed there was driving to an objective when a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP) hit an improvised- explosive device (I.E.D). Immediately after the explosion, they took small arms fire as well. The platoon returned fire, and dismounts from the functioning MRAPs ran to aide their buddies in the disabled one. But they didn’t find their buddies inside.
The Staff Sergeant on the ground concluded fighters must have captured their men in the commotion following the I.E.D’s detonation. He reported them missing to the Valley’s radioman, Pinz, who reported the same to the Colonel, who reported to a General, who appeared over the monitors from his position at Division Headquarters. This was officially an all hands on deck scenario.
Together, the Colonel and the General directed helicopters, pathfinders, other nearby platoons—everything available—to search, and everyone braced for the worst, not knowing how bad it actually was. The guys, it turned out, had not been captured, they’d been incinerated. Their buddies, who searched the MRAP’s burned out hull, simply could not comprehend the scene.
One of Harris’s other duties was to hang photos of the fallen soldiers in the Brigade’s command hallway. This was on the Wall of Heroes, and the title, Hero, was only used for those pictured on the wall. Mid-tour, there were probably ten photos. That night, Harris put up four more: Captain Van Dyne, 27 years old. Sergeant Richter, 23. Specialist Parker, 20. Private Muñoz, 18.
Sergeant Harris sat across from the Colonel. His stomach shot into his throat on the descent. The Blackhawk banked sharply and hugged the ground through the winding valley, reared back suddenly, leapt forward, and the skids hit the L.Z. Harris jumped out, took two steps, and dropped onto his stomach. The blades whirred above his head as the Blackhawk took off, kicking up a cloud of dirt and rocks that bit his face.
When Harris regained sight, he ran off the L.Z. Captain Van Dyne and a Staff Sergeant met and escorted the Colonel and him, briskly, about 50 meters to a two-story, concrete building —once an Afghan civic center. Sandbags were thrown on the roof, and it was converted to military use.
“Sir, I noticed Sergeant Major isn’t with you today. Where’s he at?” The Staff Sergeant asked, as they were walking.
The Colonel put his hand on the Staff Sergeant’s shoulder.
“Well, Sergeant, I believe that’s more information than you need to know,” he replied with a grin.
Inside the building to the right, there was a small aide station. Blood was still spattered across the floor from an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier who had, the day before, been shot in the neck the while on patrol with the platoon. The Colonel paused and turned to the medic.
“I want to see this cleaned up, Franklin,” he said.
Franklin stood at attention. The Colonel studied his face, told him to stand at ease, and with Captain Van Dyne and the Staff Sergeant following him, walked into the platoon’s TOC located to the left in a room behind a curtain. When they past earshot, Franklin shook his head. “Have you ever tried to scrub blood out of concrete? M-a-a-a-n. You’re helping me with this shit, Pinz.”
Harris tossed Franklin and Pinz a couple rolls of dip that he would always try to bring on his visits. He felt guilty coming and going from his base, which was, compared to the Valley, a five star resort. And even it was a large step down from the base at Division, where touring celebrities and statesmen visited, playing shows and shaking hands, watched across televisions back home.
“Do you know what this meeting is about?” Franklin asked Harris.
Pinz interjected, “some push they’ve got us doing next week with Company. Sounds like it’s going to be a real block party. We’ve got about 10 places that are suspect, like maybe they’re hosting these fighters who keep comin’ in.”
This was more than Harris knew about the meeting or the mission. He did know the Valley was a central pipeline for fighters coming from Pakistan to Afghanistan during the summer, or “fighting season.” It was about that time, so Pinz’s account added up. He nodded. Franklin didn’t say a word, didn’t need to. He just looked at the blood on the floor.
“Do you need help with that?” Harris said.
“Nah, man. I have to do some inventory first, and I’ll get it. No worries.”
“Yea, sure. And thanks for the dip. I’ll make sure it gets around.”
Franklin walked into the aide station with Pinz, and Harris stripped his gear and sat against the wall in the hallway. He wondered what he’d be doing if he’d never joined the Army. Working construction? Serving fast food? …Probably drinking a lot of beer.
A few guys stirred in the large, dim room straight ahead of the building’s entrance. Bunks were spaced five feet apart covering the entire area. The whole platoon slept there alongside the ANA and a few Special Forces guys. No one slept or worked on the second story. It was kept vacant, because multiple times during the day and night, fighters launched rockets from a village behind a hill, and reasonably, no one wanted to be there if a round came crashing through the roof. The fighters had not worked out the angles to hit the building, but they were getting close. The rounds often landed in the area near the platoon’s shit burning barrel, making the duty of burning and stirring the shit, for lack of any other means of disposal, a much-loathed tasked on more than one level.
There were murmured conversations on all sides of Harris. “Panic attacks…” He heard Pinz say. “Won’t patrol… panic attacks….they need to get him out of here…”
“I know,” Franklin said. “It’s on the Captain. …Jeez, hand me the bucket… Like oil, it just smears.”
Moments later, Pinz’s hand held radio crackled.
“TIC (Troops in contact) on the wire,” he said, as he rushed past Harris into the TOC.
Harris threw his gear back on and ducked outside. Guys returned fire with what sounded like their SAWs (Squad automatic machine guns) and M4s. The action took place about 50 meters to his left. A couple minutes passed. Then, he saw a soldier with one arm wrapped around another soldier limping to his position.
“They fucking got me… Little bastards.”
The two soldiers disappeared into the building, and the Colonel stepped outside.
“They fucking got him,” Harris said.
“Yep, got him right in the ankle,” the Colonel replied.
“Well, are you going to just stand there? Go get in the fight. I’m going to finish up inside.”
“Yes, sir,” Harris said and moved out, excited to get the opportunity.
He posted up looking over a Hesco barrier next to a grenadier. Attached to his rifle was a 203—a tube used for launching grenades.
“Watch the right corner of that house,” The grenadier said. “12 o’clock, right in front of you. I’ve got the other side. There’s one on the backside. He’s got to pop out one way or the other.”
One minute Harris was sitting thinking about home, and the next, just like that, he was flipping his safety to fire. The moments seemed to slow down, while time seemed to speed up. Things became a little surreal.
He tried to control his breathing and peered through his CompM —a red dot scope generally used for room clearing. It was also good for pulling security during meetings. And he flipped up a 3x magnifier, which he’d bought with his own money and attached to his M4 should any situation arise like the one he was now engaged in. At 3x magnification, the house looked not more than 150 meters away.
“Poncho’s got a couple of em held down over there,” the grenadier said.
Poncho-- the kid named Muñoz--was about 15 meters to their eight. He had dropped his SAW and taken the place of the injured 240 Gunner, and he manned the heavy machine gun with rounds running directly from a can.
“I guess that makes you Lefty,” Harris said to the grenadier.
“Townes Van Zandt. That’s some good stuff.”
“What, you think because I’m some grunt out here I listen to the bullshit that passes for country over the radio nowadays? Big & Rich and shit. Some Hanky Panky bullshit…sh-e-e-it.
“No I wasn’t meanin’ it that a way. I’m just sayin—”
“Eyes down range, soldier!”
The sun beat down from straight above. Sweat ran from Harris’s helmet under his protective eye lenses causing them to fog up, so he took them off and shoved them into the leg pouch on his pants.
A few rounds whipped behind their backs. Snap, snap, snap. Outgoing rounds rang out from the 240—thud, thud, thud, thud, thud—a burst lasting the same duration as it takes to say, “die motherfucker die.”
“The fuck? Poncho!” The grenadier said.
“They’re just spraying and praying. Hell, I got this.”
There was a lull. Gunfire rang out from the other side of the base about 300 meters behind them.
The grenadier shook his head. Sergeant Richter ran up.
“I’m going to leave Reynolds with Muñoz over there,” he said. I’ve got to run over to the backside. They’re reporting several more coming up on us.”
“Train the mortars on them,” the grenadier said.
“Yea” Sergeant Richter replied. “You know how the Captain feels about that.”
The grenadier mumbled, and Harris felt a pat on the back of his plates.
“Get some,” Richter encouraged and ran to the other position.
The tension mounted. The grenadier shot off more rounds and began to sing.
Living on the road, my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron.”
He thudded his plates.
Your breath's as hard as kerosene
“Go to hell, you Haji fuck!” He shot a series off.
“I’d use this fuckin tube were it not for the Captain. ‘We don’t know who’s in those houses,’ he says. Yeah well, I’m starting to think who gives a shit. Waste em all.” Just barely audible, the grenadier continued the song.
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams
There was a glint of barrel around the house’s corner. Shots threw up dirt in front of them. Harris put more rounds down.
Pancho was a bandit boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Another lull. Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud—die motherfucker die. And there he went, a little brown dude (L.B.D.) carrying an AK. He popped out Harris’s side. Harris put him right in his sights like a target on the range, and he pulled the trigger.
Just behind him. He took a quick second shot.
The guy ran over the side of a hill, just behind the house. Harris looked at the grenadier.
“Well you gotta lead ‘em,” he said. “Like shooting muskrats.”
“Right,” Harris said.
Muñoz crouched over to them. He had smooth cheeks and a light, black growth on his upper lip where sweat beaded. His pupils were dilated, and his whole body was charged with youthful vigor. “Mine got away, too,” he said. “May have winged one. Quick as he dove over that hill”…he took a breath, “couldn’t tell for sure.”
The Colonel finished his business, and he, Harris, the injured soldier, and another soldier, who the Colonel told Harris to keep an eye on, lined up to wait on the helicopter. It came roaring in shooting flares. The door gunner zipped rounds down the valley. Right when the skids hit, the group jumped in, and before Harris could buckle into his seat, they took off. The Colonel and Harris wore headsets for their personal radios, but they could also be plugged into the helicopters internal audio system.
“We have to avoid the ridgeline,” the pilot radioed. “We think they’ve got a Doushka set up in the trees there.”
The Colonel turned from the injured soldier to Harris and shook his head. The other soldier, next to the Colonel, removed his protective lenses and wiped away tears. Then, noticing Harris watching, he sat upright—his face ghostly white, his eyes glazed and red. Harris broke contact and turned toward the window. Thin strands of clouds drifted past.
The sun raised blood red above the mountains, reached its peak, and drove knives into the valley, drawing a new layer of sweat from Hamid’s dust covered skin.
“Hey,” Ahmad said shoving his shoulder. “Hey. Stay awake. ”
Hamid had spent the entire night digging. Ahmad was little help with his bandaged arm where the bullet cut through, just missing his bone. The fight could have ended worse for the both of them. Hamid knew this. He needed to get free from this valley of death. He needed the money. Images of his wife and daughter flashed across his mind, and he pushed his elbows into the rocky soil, propping himself up.
A few boulders and a thicket concealed him from the dirt road about 200 yards away and a couple dozen feet below. It must be close to time, he thought. The ANA insider had told them noon. He eyed the tiny ribbon marking the bomb’s location and checked the detonator. Soon, he heard a hum.
“This must be them,” Ahmad said.
The hum turned into a rumble, and Hamid gripped the detonator with a shaky hand. When the first vehicle’s front end rolled around the bend, he wanted to run. Nerves wracked his entire body. The vehicle’s whole side came into view. Heavy plates lined its tan exterior. It had three small windows, four large tires, two heavy doors near the front, and a back door that could swing down. A gunner pivoted out the top hatch.
“Allah, help me,” Hamid prayed. “Give me strength.”
He was supposed to wait for the third vehicle—the one with the Captain. The second passed.
“Allah Akbar,” Ahmad chanted quietly, “Allah Akbar.”
The third vehicle rounded the bend.
“Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar.”
It rolled toward the marker.
Hamid pulled the pin.
There was a flash—a blinding light—a boom so loud Hamid’s eardrums popped. A wave of pressure pulsed through his body and carried dust and debris, enshrouding him in a thick cloud. His ears rang. He could barely breathe. A hand tugged at his clothes and Ahmad’s face appeared, mouthing something. “GO.” “GO.” “LET’S GO.” Hamid stood up, knock kneed, unsteady. Bullets started to zip around him. Ahmad returned fire with his AK and disappeared into the cloud. Hamid ran to catch him.
Tripping on boulders down the mountain, falling to his knees across a ravine, and using the trees for support through a withered apple orchard, Hamid made his way home. He entered a gate behind Ahmad, dropped in exhaustion, stood up, and with one hand braced against an empty goat pen, began to heave water and stomach bile. Nothing solid emitted from his gut. Ahmad put his hand on Hamid’s back. His voice cut through the ringing.
“We’ve done it, my friend. We’ve done it. Oh, Allah, Oh Hamid, we are blessed.”
Hamid gasped and rubbed where his jaw met his ear.
“Oh, the Chechen,” Ahmad said, “He knows how to pack the bomb, too. That explosion, that explosion. Hamid, it was huge! Oh, we have done it. It is done.”
He shook Hamid, and Hamid turned.
“Yes, for my family, it is done,” Hamid said. “For my wife, my child.”
He walked toward the door to their living area.
“My wife, my child.”
He entered the living area and heard wailing.
Hamid’s eyes were unadjusted to the dramatic shift in light. There was only one small window in the room.
“Martyr! Martyr! You will be a Martyr!” Sahar’s, voice rang from the darkness.
She was on her knees.
“Oh Hamid,” she sobbed. “They will kill you.”
Behrukh, ran from Sahar across the room. Hamid knelt down with his arms extended, and she pushed her small, wet face into his shoulder.
“MARTYR!” Hamid’s wife cried, louder and louder, until the Chechen, Borz, emerged from a dark corner and shoved her to the floor.
“Quiet, woman,” he said in broken Pashto, Hamid’s native language.
Sahar continued crying, and Borz brought his thick black beard to her face.
“If we become martyrs, then that is what Allah wills,” He said in Chechen and raised a large hand to slap her.
Hamid jumped to his feet and feebly grabbed Borz’s wrist. His hold was sharply broken. Borz stood, shoved Hamid, and pointed a finger in his face.
“You’ve done your job. Now control the bitch.”
Hamid crouched to Sahar’s level, and a terrible laugh erupted from the second, final guest—a Pakistani. His name was Mullah Yasir. He walked toward Hamid holding out a roll of U.S. money. He made a show of unrolling the money, threw half of it to Hamid, and handed the other half to Ahmed.
“Borz saw your work from the roof” Mullah Yasir said. “Death to the infidels.”
A helicopter whirred overhead, and Hamid looked up, worried a missile might crash through the roof any minute.
“Tonight, we leave,” Borz said and gestured to Mullah Yasir to articulate in a more understandable language.
“Of course. Once night falls and the calm sets in, we leave. The Americans will search this village high and low. We can’t remain, you see. You know this. The arrangements are made in the West. Borz’s brothers are with fighters there. They will take us in.”
Hamid looked at Sahar. She was young, but her face was fractured like baked clay wet with tears. They had been through the worst together. Emaciated and broken, Hamid handed her the money.
The child wept next to them.
“Hush, Behrukh,” Hamid said. “Everything will be okay. Hush baby. Hush my darling.”
Hours passed. A sunset hue blanketed the back wall where a lone family portrait hung of Hamid, his sister, brother, mother, and father smiling before the Russians came. The Russians pillaged the valley, poisoned the wells, and terrorized the roads with helicopters that killed every soul who fled towards Kabul.
It was the helicopters that took the life of Hamid’s father. He was attempting to get medicine for the illness that killed his sister the same year. Hamid’s uncle, who fought with the mujahedeen, was fortunate to retrieve his body before the dogs ate it. Five years later, Hamid’s mother died from heartache.
Once the Russians withdrew, economic hardships spread from Kabul where infighting raged between warlords. Hamid’s younger brother fled home in search for work. He would never find any. Hamid survived, thanks to his uncle, who purchased him a herd of goats, which was enough for him to start his own family. Then, the Americans arrived.
Initially, Hamid welcomed the American’s arrival. He hoped they would bring stability to Kabul. But with the Americans, other foreigners started to appear. These foreigners brought their own beliefs, weapons, and desire to fight. Hamid’s brother, impoverished and despair-ridden, took comfort in their teachings, and when they compared the Americans to the Russians, he listened with zeal up until he clicked off a suicide vest.
While devout, Hamid’s faith could not convince him to fight. That took the onset of the drought, the loss of his goats the past winter, his daughter’s protruding ribs and her quiet sobs that never ceased. He had at times regretted bringing her into the world. During an onset of famished induced insanity, he nearly put an end to her life. Quietly, he took her hand and led her to the orchard. The boney branches rattled. Everything appeared black and white and focused sharp as a razor.
We have no food, Hamid thought. There will be no food. I can’t provide it. This girl needs food. She suffers all day, all night. She suffers and I cannot provide the food.
He took a stone and held it over Behrukh’s head.
If I kill her, she will no longer suffer. She will never suffer again. I will do it quick.
The child stood there trembling. Only her ruby eyes seemed to retain color, and looking into them, Hamid was transfixed.
Allah, help me. He prayed.
“Daddy,” Behrukh spoke.
It broke the spell. Hamid collapsed to his knees, knowing he’d been answered. He set the rock by Behrukh’s feet and kissed her cheek. Light filtered back through the trees.
“Let’s go home, my beautiful. Daddy will make things better.”
Night descended on Hamid’s household. In addition to a burro Hamid paid them for, Ahmad’s family provided flatbread, rice, and lamb. The group ate in silence, except for Behrukh, who bubbled to life giggling between Hamid and Sahar. Hamid gripped her as she came running toward him and tickled her ribs. There was laughter. Laughter, from her…Borz huffed in the corner.
When the group was finished eating, Mullah Yasir read from the Koran.
“And remember, that all those who refuse to take up arms against the infidels are traitors to their faith.”
Since Hamid was illiterate, he couldn’t check Mullah Yasir’s interpretations but wouldn’t have been surprised if Yasir was only trying to further his own agenda. Hamid heard from village elders that foreigners would often do this. Instead of turning Hamid onto violence, these elders also taught Hamid passages to assuage his grief, and in the intervals between his prayers, he recited them several times each day:
لتبلون في اموالكم وانفسكم ولتسمعن من الذين اوتوا الكتاب من قبلكم ومن الذين اشركوا اذى كثيرا وان تصبروا وتتقوا فان ذلك من عزم الامور
“You shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your lives; and you shall certainly hear much that will grieve you…But if you patiently persevere and be pious, then surely that will be of great resolution” (3:186).
After Mullah Yasir read the Koran, the group prayed. A basin sat in the corner next to a jug where Hamid washed. First, he rinsed his calloused hands. Three times, he poured water on his right hand; three times, on his left. He rinsed his mouth and snorted water through his tanned, angular nose, blew the water out, washed his trim black beard, and dabbed behind his ears. Finally, he cleaned his thin arms and feet, walked towards the window, and stood on a prayer rug cast in moonlight.
“Allah Akbar,” a unified chant sounded from everyone in the room.
Hamid folded his right arm over his left, just below his chest.
“In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful, master of the day of judgment—You alone we worship…”
Hamid unfolded his arms, brought his open hands to his face, and placed them on his knees, as he bent forward at the waist, head bowed, face to the ground.
“Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem.”
Hamid dropped to his knees, bent forward with his hands on the ground in front of his face, and he touched his nose and forehead to the rug.
“Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem.”
Hamid sat straight back on his feet, and before rising to repeat the ritual three more times, he said,
“My lord forgive me.”
Once completed, the men grabbed their belongings and prepared to leave. Mullah Yasir handed Hamid an AK.
“Ahmad, are you certain you will not go with us?” Hamid said.
“No, I must stay at home.”
“And what if the Americans come for you?”
“That is what this is for,” Ahmad said and raised his rifle.
He hugged Hamid with his other, bandaged arm and put his hand around Hamid’s neck.
“Farewell, friend” he said.
Ahmad left, and Hamid turned to Sahar and gave her a kiss.
“If the Americans come for you,” he said, “hide the money under your dress. There they will not search. Tomorrow you will go to my uncle in Kabul. He is working at the Afghan National Army Headquarters. Tell him what has happened today. He will take care of you.”
“I don’t see why I can’t go tonight?” She said. “The bags are packed and heaven knows I won’t sleep. But Behrukh will. With the burro, she can sleep soundly there.”
“No, no, you must not go. Not tonight. You don’t know what haunts the skies and might mistake you for something to kill. It is far too dangerous.”
“But what if the Americans take me?”
“The Americans will see you have a child. They will not take you.”
She paused and bit her lip, holding back tears.
“I love you, Hamid.”
“I love you, too.”
Hamid knelt to his daughter, taking her in his arms.
“My Behrukh, my beautiful, stay with your mother. I must go.”
Hamid wanted to add more after the word “go,” but he stopped himself. It was difficult for him not to cry. He didn’t want that to be his daughter’s final image of her father. He wanted her to remember him going brave and strong. Behruk, full from the dinner, didn’t seem to comprehend. Her spirits were still high.
“Go?” she said.
Hamid choked and started tearing up.
“Go, I must. Your mother will take good care of you.” He kissed Behrukh on the cheek and quickly rose to Sahar’s embrace.
“You will return,” she whispered to him. “’I must go but will return.’ That is what you mean to say. That is what you’ll do.”
Mullah Yasir, Borz, and Hamid left Hamid’s home, and under a full moon near a mountain, they further discussed their plan. The Pakistani insisted on traveling with Borz, alone. He told Hamid he must go his own direction, but that they’d meet at a set point, at a set time, and travel together from there. They knew the Americans had drones that stalked the skies, and the Pakistani was afraid that a large group would call attention to them. Hamid had no choice in the matter. He wondered if he ever had a choice in any matter. Everything in his life, he thought, amounted to this.
He started up a familiar route over the mountain. Looking back, he noticed Borz and Mullah Yasir heading a different direction than the meeting point. Several miles out on the ridgeline, he heard a blast from the direction of his village, which he could now only barely see. He knew how the American raids worked. This would not be the first in his village, and he imagined the night soldiers set a breaching charge, possibly on his very own gate.
He continued slowly and looked up to the stars. He remembered previous summers sleeping on the roof, where it was cool, with his wife and child. Sahar and Behruk. Their names hung on his lips. He was at peace and threw down the AK. Holding out his arms, palms outward, he thought, “I’m ready,” and he felt the blast.
In the TOC, the Colonel watched the drone strike through its night vision on the monitors. A small white body was thrown backward. The MAM (Military Aged Male), the body belonged to, got to his feet. Another strike landed 15 meters away. The MAM appeared torn in half, but still alive. He scrambled on his arms toward a boulder, leaving behind a trail of grey warm blood. A third blast struck further off, throwing debris in a concussive wave over him, still scrambling, until a fourth and final missile struck directly.
The bustling that preceded the strike was replaced by a long silence. Fans near the front churned the dry air. The General replaced the drone screen over the monitors.
“We got him,” he said. “Great job, men.”
A few, worn-out heads turned one way, then the other, and a short congratulatory murmur passed through the room. The Colonel remained solemn. After spending several tours leading troops from the front and witnessing war’s unmediated horrors, the drone’s blast still stirred within him a revulsion he hadn’t anticipated.
“We did all we could,” The General said directly to him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, Sir,” the Colonel said. “Tomorrow.”
The monitors went black. It was already past midnight. The ceremony to send the caskets home would be that afternoon. The Colonel signed off with his men and exited the room, taking a satellite phone with him. Outside, the moon and stars illuminated like daylight. The Colonel called his family as he had promised to do, and first, listened to his son speak enthusiastically about a little league baseball game that he’d won.
The Colonel paced back and forth, kicking a rock along the ground. His son’s friend was there to celebrate.
“Gotta go,” his son said, and the Colonel heard him sprint away.
His wife took the phone.
“It’s been a real handful here,” she said.
There was a long pause. The Colonel exhaled.
“Is there something wrong?”
“No, sweetheart, nothing. Just another day in paradise….” The Colonel patted his pockets for a cigarette, which he’d left in his room.
“Fuck,” he said under his breath.
“What?” His wife said.
“Oh, nothing” He looked back toward the ground, found the rock, and kicked it hard as he could toward the fence line along the compound.
“The hell are we even doing, here?” He burst out, even though he’d always held steadfast to the belief that there were those in the upper echelons of Washington who knew the answer and who, together, had formed a consensus to further the aims of some greater good, of which, he was one key part among many, and that this part he played was, indeed, necessary, somehow. This, he repeatedly told himself, must be true.
“I’m sorry, honey” his wife said
“The press release will come out in the next few days—you’ll see it.”
“Honey, I’m sorry. The door bell just rang, the pizza man is here. I’ve got to set the phone down.”
The Colonel shook his head and looked toward the stars--a whole lot of them. On the phone, two boys yelled in the background.
“Silas wants to have Jeremy over,” The Colonel’s wife said. “You’ve met Jeremy, right?”
The Colonel had not met Jeremy.
“First it’s one,” his wife continued. “Then two. And next, it’ll be another Xbox party,” She laughed.
“Tell Silas no Xbox party. You just hosted one last week.”
“I know, honey—look I’ve got to go. The boys are yelling for me again. But I love you, I love you.
Please, stay safe, try not to worry so much, like I know you do.”
“Alright. Give Silas a hug for me. Love you. And again, no Xbox party.
“Ok, I know. love you, bye.”
The Colonel clicked off the phone. Sergeant Harris walked past. He was holding frames, on his way to the command hallway.
“Hey! Harris” The Colonel shouted. “Come over here a sec. You mind finding me a cigarette. I’ll be out here a minute.”
“No problem, sir” Harris replied and disappeared into the dark.
The Colonel sat on the boardwalk. A soldier about 30 meters away struck up the burning barrel for classified documents, which started with crack and hiss. sending flames into the sky where the stars continued to multiply—thousands of them, millions… more than the mind could comprehend. Each one, cold, remote, and lifeless.
The Colonel turned inward, thinking of the bright, young captain he sat with not a week before, the captain’s men, the ceremony to send them home, and the one following, in the valley, where he would deliver a speech honoring their sacrifice to the soldier’s buddies, while tears streaked down their faces, and they respectfully contained their emotions, until his conclusion when they would break down into each others arms, sobbing unabashedly, as only men can, who’ve lived in so close a proximity, so long, and suffered through so much, together. The number of times the Colonel had been through this before, he lost count. He pressed his face into his hands, as he tried to fight back a wave of hostile images.
“Too much,” he thought. “Too much.”
A hand patted him on the shoulder.
“Sir, I’ve got your cigarette,” Harris said “…and a light. Here, Sir”
The Colonel breathed in deeply.
“Thank you,” he said and stood up.
“Do you have one for yourself?”
“Sure do, Sir,”
“Well, hang around awhile. I could use some company.”
“Okay,” Harris said.
They walked under a light on the boardwalk. The Colonel lit his cigarette, handed the lighter to Harris, and observed, for a long while, the burning barrel’s flame grow steadily higher.
“Keep that flame down!” He yelled to the soldier at the barrel, and he turned to Harris, whose face was crisscrossed with shadows.
“Hell of night,” The Colonel said.
“Should have killed him,” Harris replied.
“During the TIC last week. I had a shot and missed. I can’t believe I missed. Should have killed him.”
The Colonel turned away. Each drew deeply on their cigarette. Then, the Colonel began to speak about his boyhood home, growing up poor and hunting to fill the freezer with his brother and father, sometimes the whole community, in the beautiful fall stands of Virginia, during much simpler times.
The young man, Corey Anderson, backpacked two days into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and spent the last afternoon fly-fishing the South Fork of the Flathead River. He had no luck, set up camp, and warmed up rice and beans. The sun descended beneath the snow-patched peaks of the surrounding mountains. Its dull rays shined faintly across a grey and cloudy sky.
While eating, Corey was visited by an older couple on horseback, George and Jane Winston. It was early in the season still--late May-- and these two were the first people he’d seen.
“Looks like it’s gonna rain,” said George.
“It does,” said Corey.
“Mind if we set up camp near you?”
“Not at all.”
That evening the couple invited Corey to visit around a campfire, and he accepted. He found their company enjoyable. Their creased faces, the color of wheat, glowed behind the flames as they spoke of their ranching days. Then, the conversation took a more serious turn.
“Did you hear about that madman who escaped the prison?” George said. “Last tip they got was from someone in Kalispell.”
“Oh, I might have heard of it,” Corey said.
“He’s a real ugly brute,” Jane said. “That picture they keep showing—just ugly as can be. And to kill a family in cold blood like he did, found but few dollars in the home, trashed it, and took off. Mother and father killed, and a beautiful son and daughter, so young each of them...” She stared into the fire and shook her head. “God bless those poor souls. It’s just awful. Just awful,” She trailed off.
George pulled his pack chair close to her, rubbed her back, and turned to Corey once more.
“Well, you know…they set up roadblocks for him and have officers scouring this side of the state. I don’t know where he could have gone, but they’ll find him. They’ll find him and put him to justice, Jane. Don’t you worry.”
A cold breeze blew into the valley followed by light rain.
“Guess that means it time for me to turn in,” Corey said. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
“Pleasure was ours,” George said. “If you need anything before we head outta here, stop back by. We had a pretty long ride the last couple days and will probably take it easy tomorrow. Take our time in the morning. How’s that sound, Jane?”
“Sounds good to me,” Jane responded. “Have a good a night.”
Corey retreated to his tent and fitfully turned in his sleeping bag as the wind picked up, then blew in great gusts and battered the tent’s walls with sheets of rain. Around him, the beetle-scarred lodge poles creaked without pause, and at one point, as he was drifting off, he was startled awake by an owl—its loud hoot and beat of wings flying past. Bear grass cracked around him, and he reached for his handgun and clutched it close to his chest. His heart thumped wildly as he recalled his girlfriend’s words.
“Better not go back there alone! What if a bear gets you?” She said.
Corey thought that was stupid.
“What if that madman gets you?” She said.
Corey thought that was even stupider. Now, he wasn’t so sure, and after a long while, he finally settled into uneasy dreams.
The morning, though, brought peace. Two miles from the site, he found a languid stretch of river. Elsewhere the water was running quick from the snow-melt, but here, as it rounded a bend, it carved out a cut bank and slowed. Fog rolled off the river and hung below the mountains, and everything looked a paradisal blue and green. How quick, Corey thought, the moods of the woods could change, from a menacing night to an awe-inspired day.
He assembled his rod’s four pieces, tightened down his reel, and strung the line, careful to run it through each eyelet. Then, his small fly box opened, he selected a Royal Wulf.
About 10 feet into the river, a boulder sat within casting distance of the cut bank. Corey removed his boots, rolled up his pants, and waded in barefoot to his knees. A chill ran up his spine. When he reached the boulder, he pulled out a thick pair of wool socks he’d stuffed into his belt and put them on, unhooked his fly from an eyelet and roll cast it out.
Again he thought of his girlfriend’s words and again they seemed as ridiculous as he once believed. He concentrated on the fly and allowed his mind to drift into the meditative rhythm of his cast. Back one, two, hold one, forward one. Back one, two, hold one, forward one. It was just then, mid-cast, he caught something from the corner of his eye—a shadowy figure leap from the bushes, and with a flash, snatch all his gear on shore. Corey stood there holding his rod in a state of disbelief. He looked over each shoulder, appealed to the sky. Nothing. Then, the panic set in. Everything was in there: his map, his food, his boots… his gun.
He leapt from the boulder, still in wool socks, and raced through the river, slipping once, falling in and soaking half his shirt.
“Wait,” he called, “wait!”
He scrambled up the shoreline and ran towards the brush where he saw the figure disappear, raced further forward and stopped. He has my gun, my gun, my gun...the phrase reverberated in his mind. Stumbling back to the shore, he circled about pulling his hair and kicking rocks until he finally told himself, “breathe.” He breathed in deeply, exhaled slowly, and repeated.
“Okay,” he said and resolved to find the older couple. They said they’d get a late start and could still be meandering around their camp, breaking it down. Maybe, he could catch them before they left.
Corey slowly stalked back down the trail, the whole time weary of the potential threat whoever stole the pack might pose. But little could he have guessed just how big that threat really was. The madman had tied George and Jane Winston up, taken their horses, and after rummaging through poor Corey’s pack, got the wild idea he might eliminate the chance they’d ever reveal where he was, or what more he’d done.
Not a mile back down the trail, Corey heard gunshots—two of them, and not so far away. His knees went weak, and he dropped to the ground, trying to regain control of his breath once more. Maybe, the guy (he didn’t dare say the madman) was just testing the gun out, he thought. Maybe, I’ll just lie here a while, give it some time…everything will be okay.
Then, loud crashing in the brush, something large quickly approaching, a horse, broken free and frightened from the gun’s bang.
“Holy _____,” Corey nearly shouted unable to contain himself. “That’s George’s horse….George!”
Corey broke out in a cold sweat, and lump so large he could barely swallow formed in his throat. The horse ran about twenty more yards down the trail then slowed. Corey gathered his wits, stood up and went after it, thinking he’d gallop his way out of there. And that’s what he started to do. He galloped full speed, and he galloped even faster when he saw the madman (a word he’d now admit) galloping behind him.
He made it three whole miles, and the worst happened. The horse tripped over itself, an inexperienced rider at the reigns trying to push him too far. The animal rolled over Corey, left him lying on the ground reeling in pain, and took off.
The madman dismounted. He ambled over to Corey grinning his gapped and yellow-toothed grin. Sweaty, oily, stinky, he leaned over Corey.
“This the mug you expected to see out here?” he said. “Bet the troopers wouldn’t anyway.” He laughed a devilish laugh, and he fired.
Detective John Mackey, or “Big Mack” as the boys at the station called him, led Corey’s girlfriend from each spot in the scene, and finally, to where they’d found Corey’s body. Until that point, she’d remained calm and stoic, but there she broke down in sobs then in a fit that brought her to her knees.